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June 20, 2011

5

Google’s morality-free zone

by quaesitor
wired-surveillance

In the most recent edition of Wired UK, Eli Pariser wrote a brief but insightful piece about the business ethics (or lack of them) of many of the huge internet companies. It’s worth a quick read. He starts by contacting the Google PR department to find out what their ethical policies are. And the answer is less than adequate: “we’re just trying to give people the most relevant information.” 

Pariser accuses them of a ‘wilful blindness to how their design decisions affect the daily lives of millions’. But the reasons for this are not hard to see.

To further muddle the picture, when the social repercussions of their work are troubling, the architects of the online world often fall back on the manifest-destiny rhetoric of technodeterminism. Technologists, Siva Vaidhyanathan points out, rarely say something “could” or “should” happen — they say that it “will” happen.

“The search engines of the future will be personalised,” says Google vice president Marissa Mayer, using the passive voice.

Technodeterminism is alluring and convenient for newly powerful entrepreneurs because it absolves them of responsibility for what they do. Like priests at the altar, they’re mere vessels of a much larger force that it would be futile to resist. They need not concern themselves with the effects of the systems they’ve created. But technology doesn’t solve every problem of its own accord. If it did, we wouldn’t have millions of people starving to death in a world with an oversupply of food.

It shouldn’t be surprising that software entrepreneurs are incoherent about their social and political responsibilities. Once you’re on the road to riches there simply isn’t much time to think all of this through. And the pressure of the venture capitalists breathing down your neck to “monetise” doesn’t always offer much space for rumination.

This ought to give at least a pause for thought…

It shouldn’t really be surprising, though. In a world where the rampant pragmatism of modernism (‘it works’) is as unassailable as ever, and the postmodern abandonment of metanarratives prevents even the possibility of a shared or coherent ethical framework, it stands to reason. All that remains is: make as much money as you can while claiming to offer a global service.

Of course, this is not to say devising a google-era ethics is straightforward. But it is revealing, is it not, that an attempt doesn’t even seem to have been made?

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nick
    Jun 20 2011

    Hi Mark. I think this article is a little unfair. First full disclosure – while I don’t work for google yet, I have been offered a job by them as a software engineer, and will be starting soon. Though of course, I don’t speak for them.

    A major part of choosing to work for them was that as a company they seem to come closer to being an ethical company than many.

    For the direct question, http://investor.google.com/corporate/code-of-conduct.html while not exactly ethics as a Christian would understand it, is still a very good start. And since the beginning, Google has had their “Don’t be evil principle”. In terms of how they treat their staff, they seem to act very ethically including encouraging sustainable transport, encouraging families, and encouraging philanthropy: http://www.google.co.uk/intl/en/jobs/lifeatgoogle/benefits/index.html

    As I have seen it briefly from interviews, Google doesn’t have a central code of ethics, the same way it doesn’t have central control in a lot of things. It tries to hire intelligent and talented people, encourage them to do good, and see what they come up with. At least that’s my impression so far. I’ll see whether the reality matches this. But ethical considerations seem to drive what they do more than any other software/internet company I’ve come across, and yet they still get articles like this attacking them.

    To address a couple of other statements in the article.

    “It shouldn’t be surprising that software entrepreneurs are incoherent about their social and political responsibilities”. I would guess that neither Larry nor Sergei are incoherent about their social and political responsibilities. The journalist didn’t speak to the entrepreneur, he spoke to a press officer. The founders have also founded http://www.google.org/. If you just look at the front page, it would seem they view their responsibilities as worldwide health and environment protection through technology (and technology is what google does best).

    “Once you’re on the road to riches there simply isn’t much time to think all of this through.” Firstly, the Google founders are a long way from being “on the road to riches”. They are rich! Secondly, Google offers all employees 20% time to try out new things etc. This time is used by the founders, and that is where ideas like Google books come from. So possibly more than other companies, the founders have time to think things through.

    “wilful blindness to how their design decisions affect the daily lives of millions”. Everyone I met at google was conscious that their engineering decisions affect the lives of millions. I applied to work there partly because I felt as a software engineer their I could do more to improve the lives of millions than anywhere else. And there are quite a few other Christians there, who I assume have the same motivation.

    The article assumes google is a traditional, command from the top, what the press office says is law, type company, and then from one press officer’s response, quoted out of context, tars the whole company with unstated attitudes. This seems unfair.

    Reply
    • Jun 20 2011

      thanks for your comments Nick – helpful. I wondered if there would be an alternative view! After all, the author is a campaigner:

      Eli Pariser is the president of the five-million-member campaigning site moveon.org and the author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You (Viking, out on June 23)

      Reply
  2. Jun 30 2011

    this summary http://bit.ly/jA15DA of an rsa lecture eli recently gave may be useful

    in part what he was saying was that our searches are already personalised to us

    Reply
  3. Jul 15 2011

    Although I am not accusing Google of using it, the other great technodeterminist (love the word, by the way) cop-out is “If I/we don’t do it, someone else will.”

    Reply

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