A Moral Reckoning for Our Beloved Techies

Mr. Philosopher Robot

I set out to write an article on the need for an increased emphasis on Ethics within the Technology Industry. As I began to research the topic, no real target of focus emerged because there is so much that the Tech industry is grappling with as it redefines the possibilities of our future. In uncharted territories, the Tech industry has been largely left to its own devices in self-regulation.

This will change, and soon. Intel has released a draft for a federal U.S. Privacy Law. Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have all endorsed a Federal Law and Microsoft’s Deputy General Counsel Julie Brill even advocated for U.S. laws to regulate the use of specific technologies like facial recognition software that China is developing as part of its social control regime. Finally, though actually more like the leader, Apple CEO Tim Cook, in his keynote address at the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners stated Apple’s “full support of a comprehensive federal privacy law in the United States.”

The Big Tech companies have put their weight behind a privacy bill and for good reason. Throwing their support behind privacy is good pr in light of the many recent data breaches and unethical uses of data that have reshaped American democracy and eroded the trust of users. By supporting a bill they also play a large role in what the law will actually look like. In addition, as multi-national behemoths they have already made adjustments in order to comply with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation.

Europe is at the forefront of this movement with its regulation that went into effect in May. The law is comprehensive, though with shortcomings, and seeks to give the individual more control over the use of their data while seeking to create an environment of transparency about the role of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in analyzing data and the purposes for the data collection.

At the heart of the matter though are the users and the critical search of the individual in defining and creating a life well lived. Today we go to sleep and wake up with our cell phones checking them on average 150 times a day.

Tristan Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist and technology insider turned philosopher/activist, has been at the forefront of encouraging the technology industry to reform itself and the emphasis it places on addiction and screen time. He has started the “Time Well Spent” Movement and is a founder of the Center for Humane Design that “aims to catalyze a rapid, coordinated change among technology companies through public advocacy, the development of ethical design standards, design education and policy recommendations to protect minds from nefarious manipulation.”

Harris imagines a “bill of rights” outlining design standards that force a change in our tech devices from addictive to empowering tools. Rather than distraction devices, he reconceives the emphasis on getting your intended activity completed rather than showing you a distracting picture you’ve been tagged in that precipates wasted time. He imagines a world where choice availability is not the standard. Instead he encourages standards that measure the difficulty of enacting our choices. For an example, think about this Medium article and the estimated time to read listed at the top of this article. In this way, before embarking on your read, you know how much time you will be spending on the activity and can determine if the “time is well spent.”

As I’ve mentioned, ethics in technology has many considerations. Beginning with reform focused on the individual’s use of technology and emphasizing its use as a beneficial addition to life and not an overwhelming consumer of time is a good starting place. This will be the first in a series of writings I will do on the topic. I hope you enjoy.