Token Ethicists and Non-existent Moral Communities

“As it ponders important social choices that involves the application of new technology,” Langdon Winner wrote in 1992, “contemporary moral philosophy works within a vacuum.”

“The vacuum,” he goes on to say, “is a social as well as an intellectual one. Often there are no persons or organizations with clear authority to make the decisions that matter. In fact, there may be no clearly defined social channels in which important moral issues can be addressed at all.”

Instead we get “jerrybuilt policies” that emerge out of a jumble of competing private and public interests. “But given the number of points at which technologies generate significant social stress and conflict,” Winner concluded, “this familiar pattern is increasingly unsatisfactory.” (Again, remember Winner was writing in 1992.)

Cue the philosophers who specialize in ethical matters and are eager to deploy their expertise. Unfortunately, in Winner’s view, they “may find themselves involved in an exercise that is essentially technocratic.” At a certain point in the design process, they are called in as “values experts” to “provide ‘solutions’ to the kind of ‘problems’ whose features are ethical rather than solely technical … ‘Everything else looks good. What are the results from the ethics lab?'”

Winner understands that “philosophers sometimes find it tempting to play along with these expectations, gratifying to find that anyone cares about what they think, exhilarating to notice that their ideas might actually have some effect.”

But, he wonders, “Is it wise to don the mantle of the values expert?”

After they have preformed all of their intellectual labor and applied their expertise, “there remains the embarrassing question: Who in the world are we talking to? Where is the community in which our wisdom will be welcome?”

Citing two passages from then-recent articles advancing ethical claims about emerging technologies, Winner notes the frequent deployment of the rhetorical we. Acknowledging that he, too, has been guilty of using the first person plural pronoun whose antecedents are always vague and ill-defined, Winner correctly notes, “What matters here is that this lovely ‘we’ suggests the presence of a moral community that may not, in fact, exist at all, at least not in any coherent, self-conscious form.”

The important “first task” for ethics of technology, Winner suggested, would be to ask “what is the identity and character of the moral communities that will make the crucial, world-altering judgments and take appropriate action as a result?”

Winner believed this was a question about “politics and political philosophy rather than a question for ethics considered solely as a matter of right and wrong in individual conduct.” (I appreciated the qualifier solely in Winner’s claim. More on that momentarily.) As “technological things” increasingly become “central features in widely shared arrangements and conditions of life,” Winner argued, it is urgent that they be considered in a “political light.” Rather than continue in the technocratic and mostly ineffective “values expert” pattern, Winner believes “todays thinkers would do better to reexamine the role of the public in matters of this kind.” The question they should be asking is this: “How can and should democratic citizenry participate in decision making about technology?”

It seems to me that not much has changed in the 28 or so years since Winner published these reflections; we have learned very little and the challenges have become more complex, consequential, and urgent. Indeed, what strikes me about this article is that it could be re-published today without substantive changes and it would appear to be speaking directly to our situation.

In his article, Winner went on to survey ancient and modern attitudes toward the relationship between techne and politics. According to Winner, “the Western tradition of moral and political philosophy has … almost nothing to say about the ways in which persons in their role as citizens might be involved in making choices about the development, deployment, and use of new technology.” Indeed, the chief feature of both classical and modern political reflection regarding technology has been the tendency to compartmentalize the political and the technological, although for different reasons.

Wrapping up his overview of both traditions, Winner concludes:

“If one compares liberal ideology about politics and technology with its classical precursors, an interesting irony emerges. In modern thought the ancient pessimism about techne is eventually replaced by all-out enthusiasm for technological advance. At the same time basic conceptions of politics and political membership are reformulated in ways that help create new contexts for the exercise of power and authority. Despite the radical thrust of these intellectual developments, however, the classical separation between the political and the technical spheres is strongly preserved, but for entirely new reasons. Technology is still isolated from public life in both principle and practice. Citizens are strongly encouraged to become involved in improving modern material culture, but only in the market or other highly privatized settings. There is no moral community or public space in which technological issues are topics for deliberation, debate, and shared action.”

Just so.

Again, nearly three decades later, it seems the problems, on all counts, are both more acute and more vexing.

I was, in fact, reminded of a striking observation Winner made in an even earlier work, Autonomous Technology published in 1977:

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?

“There is, of course, hope that we may decide to do better than that,” Winner added. A necessary hope that is nonetheless difficult to sustain. Critically, though, Winner concluded this line of thought by reminding readers (in 1977!) that “the notion that technical forms are merely neutral … is a myth that no longer merits the least respect.”

And yet the idea that technical forms are merely neutral has proven hard to shake. For a very long time, it has been a cornerstone principle of our thinking about technology and society. Or, more to the point, we have taken it for granted and have consequently done very little thinking about technology with regards to society.

I’ll note in passing that the liberal democratic structures of modern political culture and the development of technology are deeply intertwined, and they have both depended upon the presumption of their ostensible neutrality. I tempted to think that our present crisis is a function of a growing realization that neither our political structures nor our technologies are, in fact, merely neutral instruments.

Making our way back to Winner’s claim about the absence of moral-political communities within which technological ethics can be enacted, our political structures (or better our political-economic structures) and our technologies have, as one function of their non-neutrality, made such communities very difficult to sustain. It has rendered them implausible.

We are, at present, stuck in an unhelpful tendency to imagine that our only options with regard to how we govern technology are, on the one hand, individual choices and, on the other, regulation by the state. What’s worse, we’ve also tended to oppose these to one another. But this way of conceptualizing our situation is both a symptom of the deepest consequences of modern technology and part of the reason why it is so difficult to make any progress.

Technology operates at different scales and effective mechanisms of governance need to correspond to the challenges that arise at each scale. Mechanism of governance that makes sense at one end of the spectrum will be ineffective at the other end and vice versa.

Our problem is basically this: technologies that operate at the macro-level cannot be effectively governed by micro-level mechanisms, which basically amount to individual choices. At the macro-level, however, governance is limited by the degree to which we can arrive at public consensus, and the available tools of governance at the macro-level cannot address all of the ways technologies impact individuals. What is required is a cocktail of strategies that address the consequences of technology as they manifest themselves across the spectrum of scale.

The problem, of course, as Winner diagnosed long ago, is that the further up the scale we move, the more unlikely we are to find a relevant moral community with either the prerequisite coherence or authority to effectively grapple with the problems we face. We lack those communities, in part, because of the moral and political consequences of existing technology, so it would seem that we are stuck in a vicious cycle of sorts.

I have no solution for this, of course. I think it would be helpful, though, if whatever moral communities we have left that occupy the broad space between the individual on the one hand and the state on the other would take up the challenge of thinking critically about the morally formative consequences of technology and see their way to leveraging their existing structures of deliberation and practice with a view to helping their members better navigate the challenges posed by emerging technologies. If we need some model of what this might look like, we could do worse than consider the Amish.

Periodic reminder that tips are welcome and your steady support even more so.

Digital Media and the Revenge of Politics

[Caveat lector: More so than usual, the following is an exercise in thinking out loud. I send it out into the ether to be battered into shape.]

Near the close of my last post, I wrote, “The arc of digital media is bending toward epistemic nihilism.”

It’s a line to which I frequently resort as a way of addressing a variety of developments in the sphere of digital media that have, as I see it, eroded our confidence in the possibility of public knowledge. I’m using the phrase public knowledge to get at what we believe together that is also of public consequence. This is an imperfect distinction worth teasing out, but I’m just going to let it go at that right now.

When I use that line about the arc of digital media, I have in mind phenomena like the facility with which digital media can be manipulated and, more recently, the facility with which realistic digital media can be fabricated. I’m thinking as well of the hyper-pluralism that is a function of the way digital media connect us, bringing conflicting claims, beliefs, and narratives into close proximity. “The global village,” McLuhan told us, “is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.”

It occurs to me, though, that it might be worth making a clarification:  digital media does not create the conditions out of which the problem arises.

I’ve thought now and again about how we are recapitulating certain aspects of the early modern history of Europe. At some point last year I shot off an off the cuff tweet to this effect: “Thesis: If the digital revolution is analogous to the print revolution, then we’re entering our Wars of Religion phase.”

Although the story is more complicated than this, there is something to be said for framing the emergence of the modern world as a response to an epistemic crisis occasioned by the dissolution of the what we might think of as the medieval world picture (see Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, for example).

The path that emerged as a way toward a solution to that crisis amounted to a quest certainty that took objectivity, abstraction, and neutrality as methodological pre-conditions for both the progress of science and politics, that is for re-emergence of public knowledge. The right method, the proper degree of alienation from the particulars of our situation, translations observable phenomena into the realm mathematical abstraction—these would lead us away from the uncertainty and often violent contentiousness that characterized the dissolution of the premodern world picture. The idea was to reconstitute the conditions for the emergence of public truth and, hence, public order.

Technology (or, better, technologies) plays an essential role in this story, but the role that it plays varies and shifts over time. Early on, for example, in the form of the printing press it accelerates the crisis of public knowledge, generating the pluralism of truth claims that undermine the old consensus. The same technology also comes to play a critical role in creating the conditions under which modern forms of public knowledge can emerge by sustaining the plausibility of a realm of cool, detached reason.

Consider as well how we impute to certain technologies the very characteristics we believe essential to public knowledge in the modern world (objectivity, neutrality, etc.). Think of photography, for example, and the degree to which we tend to believe that a photographic image is an objective and thus trustworthy representation of the truth of things. More recently, algorithms have been burdened with similar assumptions. Because they are cutting edge technologies feeding off of “raw data” some believe that they will necessarily yield unbiased and objectively true results. The problems with this view are, of course, well documented (here and here, for example).

The general progression has been to increasingly turn to technologies in order to better achieve the conditions under which we came to believe public knowledge could exist. Our crisis stems from the growing realization that our technologies themselves are not neutral or objective arbiters of public knowledge and, what’s more, that they may now actually be used to undermine the possibility of public knowledge.

The point, then, is this:  It’s not that digital media necessarily leads to epistemic nihilism, it’s that digital media leads to epistemic nihilism given the conditions for public knowledge that have held sway in the modern world. Seen in this light, digital media, like print before it, is helping dissolve an older intellectual and political order. It is doing so because the trajectory we set out on 400 years ago or so has more or less played itself out.

One last thought for now. According to Arendt, “The trouble is that factual truth, like all other truth, peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life. The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering; they don’t take into account other people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking.”

In other words, what if the technocratic strain within modern political culture, the drive to ground politics in truth (or facts) is actually the drive to transcend the political altogether? What if the age of electronic/mass media, the brief interregnum between the high water mark of the age of literacy and the digital age, was in some ways merely a momentary deviation from the norm during which politics could appear to be about consensus rather than struggle? In this light the political consequences of digital media might simply be characterized as the revenge of politics, although in a different and often disconcerting mode.

Digital Bunburying

Here are a few lines from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which reveal the play’s key plot device. Stay with me, it’s going somewhere.

ALGERNON  Well, that is exactly what dentists always do. Now, go on! Tell me the whole thing. I may mention that I have always suspected you of being a confirmed and secret Bunburyist; and I am quite sure of it now.

JACK  Bunburyist? What on earth do you mean by a Bunburyist?

ALGERNON  I’ll reveal to you the meaning of that incomparable expression as soon as you are kind enough to inform me why you are Ernest in town and Jack in the country.


JACK  My dear fellow, there is nothing improbable about my explanation at all. In fact it’s perfectly ordinary. Old Mr. Thomas Cardew, who adopted me when I was a little boy, made me in his will guardian to his grand-daughter, Miss Cecily Cardew. Cecily, who addresses me as her uncle from motives of respect that you could not possibly appreciate, lives at my place in the country under the charge of her admirable governess, Miss Prism.

ALGERNON Where in that place in the country, by the way?

JACK  That is nothing to you, dear boy. You are not going to be invited . . . I may tell you candidly that the place is not in Shropshire.

ALGERNON . I suspected that, my dear fellow! I have Bunburyed all over Shropshire on two separate occasions. Now, go on. Why are you Ernest in town and Jack in the country?

JACK  My dear Algy, I don’t know whether you will be able to understand my real motives. You are hardly serious enough. When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone on all subjects. It’s one’s duty to do so. And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one’s health or one’s happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in the Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes. That, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple.


ALGERNON  What you really are is a Bunburyist. I was quite right in saying you were a Bunburyist. You are one of the most advanced Bunburyists I know.

JACK  What on earth do you mean?

ALGERNON  You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose. Bunbury is perfectly invaluable. If it wasn’t for Bunbury’s extraordinary bad health, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to dine with you at Willis’s to-night, for I have been really engaged to Aunt Augusta for more than a week.

And now here is a proposal that was brought to my attention today:

The tweet, of course, is in jest—in the spirit of gallows humor, I’d suggest—but it usefully brings together two trends that should concern us: ubiquitous surveillance and deepfake technology. What it suggests is that you need a fake version of yourself to escape the ubiquity of surveillance, although, of course, the ubiquity of deepfake technology also appears to require ever more

Relatedly, take a moment to visit This Person Does Not Exist. The image you’ll see is of a person who … does not exist. The image is generated by generative adversarial networks. Hit refresh and you’ll get another.

After you’ve perused a few images, read Kyle McDonald’s “How to recognize fake AI-generated images.” Things to look for include weird teeth, asymmetry, surreal backgrounds, mismatched or missing earrings. That helps. For now.

More news on the deepfake front: “The creators of a revolutionary AI system that can write news stories and works of fiction – dubbed ‘deepfakes for text’ – have taken the unusual step of not releasing their research publicly, for fear of potential misuse.”

Here’s a link to OpenAI’s post about their work: Better Language Models and Their Implications. In it they explain their decision not to release their research:

Due to concerns about large language models being used to generate deceptive, biased, or abusive language at scale, we are only releasing a much smaller version of GPT-2 along with sampling code. We are not releasing the dataset, training code, or GPT-2 model weights. Nearly a year ago we wrote in the OpenAI Charter: “we expect that safety and security concerns will reduce our traditional publishing in the future, while increasing the importance of sharing safety, policy, and standards research,” and we see this current work as potentially representing the early beginnings of such concerns, which we expect may grow over time. This decision, as well as our discussion of it, is an experiment: while we are not sure that it is the right decision today, we believe that the AI community will eventually need to tackle the issue of publication norms in a thoughtful way in certain research areas.

All of this recalls Max Read’s recent piece, “How Much of the Internet is Fake?”

How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”

The arc of digital media is bending toward epistemic nihilism, as I’ve been inclined to put it on Twitter; it amounts to a casual indifference to much of what has counted as evidence in recent memory. There is, of course, something decidedly Baudrillardian about this. But, of course, even to suggest that Baudrillard has something to tell us about our moment is to acknowledge that digital media has not necessarily initiated the trajectory, it has merely accelerated our descent, exponentially so perhaps.

Remembering Iris Murdoch

The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch died on this day in 1999. I’ve appreciated what I have read of her work, although I’m sorry to admit that I’ve yet to read any of her fiction.

She was part of a set of formidable twentieth century philosophers that included Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Mary Midgley, who passed away last year. You can read about the cohort in this essay, which focuses on Foot. Here’s an excerpt:

“As Murdoch put it to a New Yorker journalist, what they were united in denying was the claim that ‘the human being was the monarch of the Universe, that he constructed his values from scratch’. The four of them, by contrast, were interested in ‘the reality that surrounds man – transcendent or whatever’.

Murdoch’s ‘or whatever’ was a reference to the things that divided them: she herself was drawn to a vision of a Universe where ‘the Good’, if not God, was real; Anscombe was a devout Catholic; Foot – in her own words – was a ‘card-carrying atheist’. But all three of them took seriously the claim that moral judgments are an attempt, however flawed in particular cases, to get at something true independently of human choices.”

My first encounter with Murdoch came years ago through this selection from The Sovereignty of the Good in which Murdoch describes the relationship between love and learning as well as the value of the intellectual virtues:

“If I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal. The honesty and humility required of the student — not to pretend to know what one does not know — is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar who does not even feel tempted to suppress the fact which damns his theory.”

Elsewhere in The Sovereignty of the Good, she reflected on relationship between love, seeing, attention, and freedom:

“It is in the capacity to love, that is to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists. The freedom which is a proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy, that is the realism of compassion. What I have called fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centered aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called ‘will’ or ‘willing’ belongs to this system. What counteracts the system is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love.

She added,

Freedom is not strictly the exercise of the will, but rather the experience of accurate vision which, when this becomes appropriate, occasions actions. It is what lies behind and in between actions and prompts them that is important, and it is this area which should be purified. By the time the moment of choice has arrived the quality of attention has probably determined the nature of the act.”

Her discussion of attention, incidentally, was influenced by Simone Weil from whom she says she borrowed the term “to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality.”

One last excerpt:

“Words are the most subtle symbols which we possess and our human fabric depends on them. The living and radical nature of language is something which we forget at our peril.”

Needless to say, I think her work remains relevant and even urgent.

For more about Murdoch, see this recent essay in LARB, “Innumerable Intentions and Charms”: On Gary Browning’s “Why Iris Murdoch Matters.”

Don’t Romanticize the Present

Steven Pinker and Jason Hickel have recently engaged in a back-and-forth about whether or not global poverty is decreasing. The first salvo was an essay by Hickel in the Guardian targeting claims made by Bill Gates. Pinker responded here, and Hickel posted his rejoinder at his site.

I’ll let you dive in to the debate if you’re so inclined. The exchange is of interest to me, in part, because evaluations of modern technology are often intertwined with this larger debate about the relative merits of what, for brevity’s sake, we may simply call modernity (although, of course, it’s complicated).

I’m especially interested in a rhetorical move that is often employed in these kinds of debates:  it amounts to the charge of romanticizing the past.

So, for example, Pinker claims, “Hickel’s picture of the past is a romantic fairy tale, devoid of citations or evidence.” I’ll note in passing Hickel’s response, summed up in this line: “All of this violence, and much more, gets elided in your narrative and repackaged as a happy story of progress. And you say I’m the one possessed of romantic fairy tales.” Hickel, in my view, gets the better of Pinker on this point.

In any case, the trope is recurring and, as I see it, tiresome. I wrote about it quite early in the life of this blog when I explained that I did not, in fact, wish to be a medieval peasant.

More recently, Matt Stoller tweeted, “When I criticize big tech monopolies the bad faith response is often a variant of ‘so you want to go back to horses and buggies?!?'” Stoller encountered some variant of this line so often that he was searching for a simple term by which to refer to it. It’s a Borg Complex symptom, as far as I’m concerned.

At a forum about technology and human flourishing I recently attended, the moderator, a fine scholar whose work I admire, explicitly cautioned us in his opening statements against romanticizing the past.

It would take no time at all to find similar examples, especially if you expand “romanticizing the past” to include the equally common charge of reactionary nostalgia. Both betray a palpable anxiousness about upholding the superiority of the present.

I understand the impulse, I really do. I think it was from Alan Jacobs that I first learned about the poet W. H. Auden’s distinction between those whose tendency is to look longingly back at some better age in the past and those who look hopefully toward some ideal future:  Arcadians and Utopians respectively, he called them. Auden took these to be matters of temperament. If so, then I would readily admit to being temperamentally Arcadian. For that reason, I think I well understand the temptation and try to be on guard against it.

That said, stern warnings against romanticizing the past sometimes reveal a susceptibility to another temptation:  romanticizing the present.

This is not altogether surprising. To be modern is to define oneself by one’s location in time, specifically by being on the leading edge of time. Novelty becomes a raison d’être.

As the historian Michael Gillespie has put it,

… to think of oneself as modern is to define one’s being in terms of time. This is remarkable. In previous ages and other places, people have defined themselves in terms of their land or place, their race or ethnic group, their traditions or their gods, but not explicitly in terms of time …  To be modern means to be “new,” to be an unprecedented event in the flow of time, a first beginning, something different than anything that has come before, a novel way of being in the world, ultimately not even a form of being but a form of becoming.

Within this cultural logic, the possibility that something, anything, was better in the past is not only a matter of error, it may be experienced as a threat to one’s moral compass and identity. Over time, perhaps principally through the nineteenth century, progress displaced providence and, consequently, optimism displaced hope. The older theological categories were simply secularized. Capital-P Progress, then, despite its many critics, still does a lot of work within our intellectual and moral frameworks.

Whatever its sources, the knee-jerk charge of romanticizing the past or of succumbing to reactionary nostalgia often amounts to a refusal to think about technology or take responsibility for it.

As the late Paul Virilio once put it, “I believe that you must appreciate technology just like art. You wouldn’t tell an art connoisseur that he can’t prefer abstractionism to expressionism. To love is to choose. And today, we’re losing this. Love has become an obligation.”

We are not obligated to love technology. This is so not only because love, in this instance, ought not to be an obligation but also because there is no such thing as technology. By this I mean simply that technology is a category of dubious utility. If we allow it to stand as an umbrella term for everything from modern dentistry to the apparatus of ubiquitous surveillance, then we are forced to either accept modern technology in toto or reject it in toto. We are thus discouraged from thoughtful discrimination and responsible judgment. It is within this frame that the charge romanticizing the past as a rejoinder to any criticism of technology operates. And it is this frame that we must reject. Modern technology is not good by virtue of its being modern. Past configurations of the techno-social milieu are not bad by virtue of their being past.

We should romanticize neither the past nor the present, nor the future for that matter. We should think critically about how we develop, adopt, and implement technology, so far as it is in our power to do so. Such thinking stands only to benefit from an engagement with the past as, if nothing else, a point of reference. The point, however, is not a retrieval of the past but a better ordering of the present and future.