Variations On A Utilitarian Theme

Read along, if you will, as I tell a little story of sorts through a series of excerpts. It is essentially a story about the links among prevalent trends involving surveillance, data, security, self-documentation, and happiness.

Jeremy Bentham in Deontology, or The Science of Morality:

It were to be wished that every man’s name were written upon his forehead as well as engraved upon his door. It were to be wished that no such thing as secrecy existed that every man’s house were made of glass …

The more men live in public, the more amenable they are to the moral sanction. The greater dependence men are in to the public, that is, the more equality there is among them, the clearer the evidence comes out, the more it has of certainty in its results. The liberty of the press throws all men into the public presence. The liberty of the press is the greatest co-adjutor of the moral sanction. Under such influence, it were strange if men grew not every day more virtuous than on the former day. I am satisfied they do ….

A whole kingdom, the great globe itself, will become a gymnasium, in which every man exercises himself before the eyes of every other man. Every gesture, every turn of limb or feature, in those whose motions have a visible influence on the general happiness, will be noticed and marked down.

Lewis Mumford in The Myth of the Machine:

“In the end, no action, no conversation, and possibly in time no dream or thought would escape the wakeful and relentless eye of this deity: every manifestation of life would be processed into the computer and brought under its all-pervading system of control. This would mean, not just the invasion of privacy, but the total destruction of autonomy: indeed the dissolution of the human soul.”

Stephen Wolfram, Seeking the Productive Life:

I have systems that keep all sorts of data, including every keystroke I type, every step I take and what my computer screen looks like every minute (sadly, the movie of this is very dull). I also have a whole variety of medical and environmental sensors, as well as data from devices and systems that I interact with.

It’s interesting every so often to pick up those Wolfram Data Drop databins and use them to do some data science on my life. And, yes, in broad terms I find that I am extremely consistent and habitual—yet every day there are different things that happen, that make my “productivity” (as measured in a variety of ways) bounce around, often seemingly randomly …

Perhaps all that data I’ve collected on myself will one day let one basically just built a “bot of me”. Having seen so many of my emails—and being able to look at all my files and personal analytics—maybe it’s actually possible to predict how I’d respond to any particular question.

Hugo Huijer, Engineering a Happiness Prediction Model:

Over the last 5 years, I’ve tracked my happiness every single day. I’ve now used this data to build a happiness prediction model. That’s right. I’ve built a model that can accurately predict how happy I will be on a scale from 1 to 10, based on what I plan to do that day.

This model features over 80 happiness factors. Below is a sneak peek of these happiness factors. This shows how much certain factors – like running, my job and my relationship with my girlfriend – influence my happiness.


I first came across Ursula Le Guin’s well-known short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” in an anthology of readings in ethical theory. It was included in the section on utilitarianism or consequentialism. The story, as many of you will know, is about a city called Omelas that is a citadel of peace, prosperity, and happiness without artificiality. But, we soon learn, all of this is somehow connected to the suffering of a lone individual, who is kept isolated in a dark, putrid cell, his human faculties barely developed. At a certain age, everyone who lives in Omelas must witness the condition of this individual and so come to terms with the cost of their happiness. The title of the story, of course, tells us about the choice at least some of the citizens of Omelas make. You should read the story, this summary obviously does not do it justice.

I bring the story to mind, however, as a way of framing this last piece: “The Trauma Floor: The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America.”  It is an account of a the kind of work that poorly compensated Facebook moderators do in an effort to keep Facebook’s newsfeed relatively pleasant and devoid of the very worst of what human beings are capable of doing to themselves and to one another.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

She spent the past three and a half weeks in training, trying to harden herself against the daily onslaught of disturbing posts: the hate speech, the violent attacks, the graphic pornography. In a few more days, she will become a full-time Facebook content moderator, or what the company she works for, a professional services vendor named Cognizant, opaquely calls a “process executive.”

For this portion of her education, Chloe will have to moderate a Facebook post in front of her fellow trainees. When it’s her turn, she walks to the front of the room, where a monitor displays a video that has been posted to the world’s largest social network. None of the trainees have seen it before, Chloe included. She presses play.

The video depicts a man being murdered. Someone is stabbing him, dozens of times, while he screams and begs for his life. Chloe’s job is to tell the room whether this post should be removed. She knows that section 13 of the Facebook community standards prohibits videos that depict the murder of one or more people. When Chloe explains this to the class, she hears her voice shaking.

Returning to her seat, Chloe feels an overpowering urge to sob. Another trainee has gone up to review the next post, but Chloe cannot concentrate. She leaves the room, and begins to cry so hard that she has trouble breathing.

No one tries to comfort her. This is the job she was hired to do. And for the 1,000 people like Chloe moderating content for Facebook at the Phoenix site, and for 15,000 content reviewers around the world, today is just another day at the office.

If you are not keen on reading at even greater depth and detail about the work these “process executives” do out of sight for the sake of Facebook’s user experience, there is a sidebar near the top of the piece with bullet-pointed summary of key points. At least glance at those.

H/t to Neil Turkewitz for the Mumford quote.

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