responding to @npdoty on ethics in engineering

by Sebastian Benthall

Nick Doty wrote a thorough and thoughtful response to my earlier post about the Facebook research ethics problem, correcting me on a number of points.

In particular, he highlights how academic ethicists like Floridi and Nissenbaum have an impact on industry regulation. It’s worth reading for sure.

Nick writes from an interesting position. Since he works for the W3C himself, he is closer to the policy decision makers on these issues. I think this, as well as his general erudition, give him a richer view of how these debates play out. Contrast that with the debate that happens for public consumption, which is naturally less focused.

In trying to understand scholarly work on these ethical and political issues of technology, I’m struck by how differences in where writers and audiences are coming from lead to communication breakdown. The recent blast of popular scholarship about ‘algorithms’, for example, is bewildering to me. I had the privilege of learning what an algorithm was fairly early. I learned about quicksort in an introductory computing class in college. While certainly an intellectual accomplishment, quicksort is politically quite neutral.

What’s odd is how certain contemporary popular scholarship seeks to introduce an unknowing audience to algorithms not via their basic properties–their pseudocode form, their construction from more fundamental computing components, their running time–but for their application in select and controversial contexts. Is this good for the public education? Or is this capitalizing on the vagaries of public attention?

My democratic values are being sorely tested by the quality of public discussion on matters like these. I’m becoming more content with the fact that in reality, these decisions are made by self-selecting experts in inaccessible conversations. To hope otherwise is to downplay the genuine complexity of technical problems and the amount of effort it takes to truly understand them.

But if I can sit complacently with my own expertise, this does not seem like a political solution. The FCC’s willingness to accept public comment, which normally does not elicit the response of a mass action, was just tested by Net Neutrality activists. I see from the linked article that other media-related requests for comments were similarly swamped.

The crux, I believe, is the self-referential nature of the problem–that the mechanics of information flow among the public are both what’s at stake (in terms of technical outcomes) and what drives the process to begin with, when it’s democratic. This is a recipe for a chaotic process. Perhaps there are no attractor or steady states.

Following Rash’s analysis of Habermas and Luhmann’s disagreement as to the fate of complex social systems, we’ve got at least two possible outcomes for how these debates play out. On the one hand, rationality may prevail. Genuine interlocutors, given enough time and with shared standards of discourse, can arrive at consensus about how to act–or, what technical standards to adopt, or what patches to accept into foundational software. On the other hand, the layering of those standards on top of each other, and the reaction of users to them as they build layers of communication on top of the technical edifice, can create further irreducible complexity. With that complexity comes further ethical dilemmas and political tensions.

A good desideratum for a communications system that is used to determine the technicalities of its own design is that its algorithms should intelligently manage the complexity of arriving at normative consensus.