In a twitter thread that has been retweeted over 17,000 times to date, the actor Kumail Nanjiani took the tech industry to task for its apparent indifference to the ethical consequences of their work.
Nanjiani stars in the HBO series Silicon Valley and, as part of his research for the role, he spends a good deal of time at tech conferences and visiting tech companies. When he brings up possible ethical concerns, he realizes “that ZERO consideration seems to be given to the ethical implications of tech.” “They don’t even have a pat rehearsed answer,” Nanjiani adds, “They are shocked at being asked. Which means nobody is asking those questions.” Read the whole thread. It ends on this cheery note: “You can’t put this stuff back in the box. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. And there are no guardians. It’s terrifying. The end.”
Nanjiani’s thread appears to have struck a nerve. It was praised by many of the folks I follow on Twitter, and rightly so. Yes, he’s an actor, not a philosopher, historian, or sociologist, etc., but there’s much to commend in his observations and warnings.
But here’s what Nanjiani may not know: we had, in fact, been warned. Nanjiani believes that “nobody is asking those questions,” questions about technology’s ethical consequence, but this is far from the truth. Technology critics have been warning us for a very long time about the disorders and challenges, ethical and otherwise, that attend contemporary technology. In 1977, for example, Langdon Winner wrote the following:
Different ideas of social and political life entail different technologies for their realization. One can create systems of production, energy, transportation, information handling, and so forth that are compatible with the growth of autonomous, self-determining individuals in a democratic polity. Or one can build, perhaps unwittingly, technical forms that are incompatible with this end and then wonder how things went strangely wrong. The possibilities for matching political ideas with technological configurations appropriate to them are, it would seem, almost endless. If, for example, some perverse spirit set out deliberately to design a collection of systems to increase the general feeling of powerlessness, enhance the prospects for the dominance of technical elites, create the belief that politics is nothing more than a remote spectacle to be experienced vicariously, and thereby diminish the chance that anyone would take democratic citizenship seriously, what better plan to suggest than that we simply keep the systems we already have?
It would not take very much time or effort to find similar expressions of critical concern about technology’s social and moral consequences from a wide array of writers, critics, historians, philosophers, sociologists, political theorists, etc. dating back at least a century.
My first response to Nanjiani’s thread is thus mild irritation, bemusement really, about how novel and daring his comments appear when, in fact, so many have for so long been saying just as much and more trenchantly and at great length.
Beyond this, however, there are a few other points worth noting.
First, we are, as a society, deeply invested in the belief that technology is ethically neutral if not, in fact, an unalloyed good. There are complex and longstanding reasons for this, which, in my view, involve both the history of politics and of religion in western society over the last few centuries. Crudely put, we have invested an immense measure of hope in technology and in order for these hopes to be realized it must be assumed that technology is ethically neutral or unfailingly beneficent. For example, if technology, in the form of Big Data driven algorithmic processes, is to function as arbiter of truth, it can do so only to the degree that we perceive these processes to be neutral and above the biases and frailties that plague human reasoning.
Second, the tech industry is deeply invested in the belief that technology is ethically neutral. If technology is ethically neutral, then those who design, market, and manufacture technology cannot be held responsible for the consequences of their work. Moreover, we are, as consumers, more likely to adopt new technologies if we are wholly untroubled by ethical considerations. If it occurred to us that every device we buy was a morally fraught artifact, we might be more circumspect about what we purchase and adopt.
Third, it’s not as easy as saying we should throw some ethics at our technology. One should immediately wonder whose ethics are in view? We should not forget that ours is an ethically diverse society and simply noting that technology is ethically fraught does not immediately resolve the question of whose ethical vision should guide the design, development, and deployment of new technology. Indeed, this is one of the reasons we are invested in the myth of technology’s neutrality in the first place: it promises an escape from the messiness of living with competing ethical frameworks and accounts of human flourishing.
Fourth, in seeking to apply ethics to technology we would not be entering into a void. In Autonomous Technology, Langdon Winner observed that “while positive, utopian principles and proposals can be advanced, the real field is already taken. There are, one must admit, technologies already in existence—apparatus occupying space, techniques shaping human consciousness and behavior, organizations giving pattern to the activities of the whole society.”
Likewise, when we seek to apply ethics to technology, we must recognize that the field is already taken. Not only are particular artifacts and devices not ethically neutral, they also partake of a pattern that informs the broader technological project. Technology is not neutral and, in its contemporary manifestations, it embodies a positive ethic. It is unfashionable to say as much, but it seems no less true to me. I am here thinking of something like what Jacques Ellul called la technique or what Albert Borgmann called the device paradigm. The principles of this overarching but implicit ethic embodied by contemporary technology include axioms such as “faster is always better,” “efficiency is always good,” “reducing complexity is always desirable,” “means are always indifferent and interchangeable.”
Fifth, the very idea of a free-floating, abstract system of ethics that can simply be applied to technology is itself misleading and a symptom of the problem. Ethics are sustained within communities whose moral visions are shaped by narratives and practices. As Langdon Winner has argued, drawing on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, “debates about technology policy confirm MacIntyre’s argument that modern societies lack the kinds of coherent social practice that might provide firm foundations for moral judgments and public policies.” “[T]he trouble,” Winner adds, “is not that we lack good arguments and theories, but rather that modern politics simply does not provide appropriate roles and institutions in which the goal of defining the common good in technology policy is a legitimate project.”
Contemporary technology undermines the communal and political structures that might sustain an ethical vision capable of directing and channeling the development of technology (creative destruction and what not). And, consequently, it thrives all the more because these structures are weakened. Indeed, alongside Ellul’s la technique and Borgmann’s device paradigm, we might add another pattern that characterizes contemporary technology: the design of contemporary technology is characterized by a tendency to veil or obscure its ethical ramifications. We can call it, with a nod to Borgmann, the ethical neutrality paradigm: contemporary technologies are becoming more ethically consequential while their design all the more successfully obscures their ethical import.
I do not mean to suggest that it is futile to think ethically about technology. That’s been more or less what I’ve been trying to do for the past seven years. But under these circumstances, what can be done? I have no obvious solutions. It would be helpful, though, if designers worked to foreground rather than veil the ethical consequences of their tools. That may be, in fact, the best we can hope for at present: technology that resists the ethical neutrality paradigm, yielding moral agency back to the user or, at least, bringing the moral valence of its use, distributed and mediated as it may be, more clearly into view.
Tip the Writer