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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Giving Ourselves Away, by Callum Hackett

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This essay, by Oxford graduate student Callum Hackett, is one of the six shortlisted essays in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

‘Giving Ourselves Away: online communication alters the self and society’

Invention is a fertile source of new ethical problems because creating new tools creates questions about how they might be used for better or worse. However, while every invention has its unique uses, the questions we must ask of them are often the same. For example, the harnessing of water and steam in the Industrial Revolution raised the same concern as robotics in contemporary manufacturing for how mechanization affects the economic empowerment of the working class. Naturally, there are fewer underlying ethical problems than there are inventions that cluster around them, but here I wish to explore the possibility that the mass adoption of the internet has brought with it a new problem with which we are just starting to engage. Specifically, while the internet poses a series of difficult questions, I will consider the implications of certain characteristics of online communication for the self, society and politics.

Since their invention in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, computers have had a controversial impact on our self-perception. In the philosophies of mind and consciousness, for example, the theory of computation has been used in arguments about the function of the brain and the potential for sentient artificial intelligence. More practically, however, while computers have taken on much of the work of our brawn and intellect and so given us metaphors (right or wrong) for how we function, the internet has gone beyond any previous computer-based technology in shaping how we can and do connect with each other, and how we create personas that stand in for our real selves. These forms of social restructuring were inconceivable with powered looms or calculators, or even with advanced transportation, so never before has a technology struck so close to affecting our identities. Separate from the pseudoscientific and Rousseauian anxieties that herald most new technologies, public discussion has started to look seriously at these issues, moving away from concerns about how we are abused online by the invisible, nefarious fiddlings of tech corporations and intelligence agencies to how we abuse ourselves by readily taking part in the internet as it exists today.

One approach for critiquing technologies is to ask to what extent they are accommodating, if they should be, of human behaviours and abilities. For example, the design and development of graphical user interfaces helped early computer-users circumvent the learning curve inherent in a command line by replacing formal, text-based rules with an intuitive visual system, thus facilitating the ubiquitous use of computers as personal devices. One comparable challenge for the internet is the extent to which online communication replicates a natural offline experience, and whether or not any differences matter. It is my view that, to our detriment, we are essentially being ergonomised by machines: we ought to expect better mimicking of offline communication, but rather than being put off by their inadequacies, we adapt our behaviours to fit online systems and do ourselves harm in the process.

First, we have to be specific about what kind of communication we are interested in because people modify their interactions with each other depending on who they are talking to and in what medium. Here, I am concerned with conversational communication, where I take ‘conversation’ to mean the rapid exchange of ideas in an informal setting. At any other time in history, conversation would necessarily have been spoken because speech travels at the speed of sound, while any form of writing would have taken days or weeks to be delivered or circulated. The internet is revolutionary in that it has made writing a viable form for conversation for the first time in history, as we can now communicate in text almost instantaneously. However, despite this convergence, there is an important difference in that spoken conversation is only meaningful for the few milliseconds that its sound propagates towards its listeners, while written communication is a permanent artefact until some process of destruction. This has been true of all writing throughout history, but the unique significance of the internet is this confluence of permanence with conversational style. For the rest of this essay, I will outline some reasons why it may be more ethical to build and use forms of online communication that take advantage of the technical possibility to have communication self-destruct after a determined period of time in order to simulate the transience of speech, while leaving us the option to select certain things to keep indefinitely.

An initial point to consider is that the permanence of conversation may alter what we believe to be appropriate, resulting in undesirable behaviours ranging from self-censorship to narcissism. One small example is that, unless we take pains to plan our online interactions carefully, there is no longer the possibility for something to be said ‘in the moment’, at risk or at whim, as anything said is immediately stored in a personal record. Furthermore, because of the universal and protean nature of an internet audience (particularly on unrestricted sites like Twitter), we are subtly encouraged to predetermine a persona for ourselves with which our comments must accord, thereby limiting the scope of things we feel comfortable saying, as well as stultifying our potential for growth and reinvention because we are forever attached to all the thoughts and attitudes of our past selves with which we may not identify any more.

Superficially, these facts seem to mean nothing more than that the internet is a large public forum and that, despite its conversational possibilities, we must not confuse it for having the personal characteristics of spoken conversation, which may take place in public spaces but is understood to have a more limited audience. Therefore, one might object that the internet is just another arena in which we must modify our communication to comport with the medium and it should not be compared with offline communication. The problem with such an objection are that these boundaries are becoming less and less clear, making it difficult for people to assess what is and is not appropriate: what is and is not conversational, public or private. This can be seen by looking at some of the longer-term social consequences of online communication, implicit in the past year’s discussions of digital privacy but which went largely unnoticed.

This issue relates to the various kinds of information that can be collected and used in ways we might not like. First, there is information that is private that we know we are giving away (like search engine queries and interactions with advertisements); second, there is information that is private that many of us don’t know we are giving away (such as third-party tracking of our browsing histories); and third, there is public information (such as the content of social media posts), which is counter-intuitively the most concerning. At present, we know that public data is used for targeted advertising and statistical inferences of private details (like sexual orientations based on facebook ‘likes’) but notice that, unlike private information, there is not an unequal access to the information here but rather unequal access to computational power for processing it. Today, only large tech corporations have the expertise and facilities to run algorithms that can build profiles of people, but the increasing efficiency and cheapness of computation means that, one day, we will likely all have access to programs that can build profiles like these, so the essence of the problem is not how corporations use our public information now, but how we, as users, will use each other’s information when we can all do the same at the touch of a button.

It is difficult to imagine the ramifications of being so open and legible to everyone – more than we have ever been to even the most penetrative psychiatrist – as our use of such capabilities will depend on other cultural attitudes that are hard to predict. It is at least conceivable that we could embrace it as an entirely positive development in human interaction. Conversely, it could make us believe more than ever that we are less knowing of our own complexities than crude computer algorithms, and it could provide a basis for a damaging wave of social eugenics: with little more effort than swiping a screen, in business we could prejudice ourselves against people whose inferred traits and beliefs we dislike, and in our personal lives we could wall ourselves off from them entirely, even though, in both scenarios, we might benefit from these interactions in unexpected ways. Such inferences from apparently innocuous data strike at the most pernicious effect of permanent conversation: by pure happenstance of the structure of the communication medium we use, a complete stranger could infer more about us than we have ever explicitly revealed to even our closest friends. In such circumstances, it is not possible to tell what is safe to say, making self-censorship almost inescapable.

On a global scale, if it is the case that the internet can influence our identities and interactions in such profound ways, then there are serious ethical implications for its global adoption. At the 2015 World Economic Forum, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, made a statement of unbridled optimism:


“Almost all of the problems we debate can be solved literally with more broadband connectivity … And the reason is, broadband is how you address the governance issues, the information issue, the education issues, the personal security issues, the human rights issues, the women’s empowerment issues.”


Although we may interpret this as the exaggerations of a businessman with a vested interest in the pervasiveness of the internet, there is some truth in the idea that some systemic problems might be helped in this way. More importantly, however, there is the incontrovertibly real intention to solve such problems in this way, yet the spread of a cultural force like the internet has the potential to contravene protections such as the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which mandates that: “states shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for, any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities [and] any form of forced assimilation or integration.” I would argue that our understanding of ‘indigenous peoples’ in this context should allow for the fact that computation at a distance, particularly through a homogenising internet, has the ability to do the work that physical invasion would once have done by altering the foundations of personal dynamics and social structures. Therefore, we need to think carefully about whether the internet could, against our best intentions, be a modern instrument of colonisation, and therefore whether an idealistic pursuit of global coverage is unethical for reasons of effective cultural changes that are incidental to the purported benefits of the technology.

The most potent challenge to this somewhat pessimistic view is to say that we mustn’t be so cautious and relativistic as to deny people the empowerment of technological advance on the basis that they don’t already have the technology. In response to this, I would first state that we should re-examine the rhetoric of empowerment that we are used to, as I believe, for reasons of a separate argument, that this is delusional, but second I would want to make it clear that this is an argument for a changed internet rather than for no internet at all. It is an argument that the world should have total internet access but that it would be unethical to pursue such access without first doing the hard work of building a system that is neutral to the cultures that adopt it instead of having its benefits attached to unavoidable changes in identities and values – surely a kind of subliminal propaganda. The only way to achieve this, for our own benefit and the world’s, is to model internet culture on real-world interaction so that we can flourish in ways that are natural to us instead of being constrained and unexpectedly harmed by systems that are lazily designed.

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