For a more ethical Silicon Valley, we need a wiser economics of data
by Sebastian Benthall
Kara Swisher’s NYT op-ed about the dubious ethics of Silicon Valley and Nitasha Tiku’s WIRED article reviewing books with alternative (and perhaps more cynical than otherwise stated) stories about the rise of Silicon Valley has generated discussion and buzz among the tech commentariat.
One point of debate is whether the focus should be on “ethics” or on something more substantively defined, such as human rights. Another point is whether the emphasis should be on “ethics” or on something more substantively enforced, like laws which impose penalties between 1% and 4% of profits, referring of course to the GDPR.
While I’m sympathetic to the European approach (laws enforcing human rights with real teeth), I think there is something naive about it. We have not yet seen whether it’s ever really possible to comply with the GDPR could wind up being a kind of heavy tax on Big Tech companies operating in the EU, but one that doesn’t truly wind up changing how people’s data are used. In any case, the broad principles of European privacy are based on individual human dignity, and so they do not take into account the ways that corporations are social structures, i.e. sociotechnical organizations that transcend individual people. The European regulations address the problem of individual privacy while leaving mystified the question of why the current corporate organization of the world’s personal information is what it is. This sets up the fight over ‘technology ethics’ to be a political conflict between different kinds of actors whose positions are defined as much by their social habitus as by their intellectual reasons.
My own (unpopular!) view is that the solution to our problems of technology ethics are going to have to rely on a better adapted technology economics. We often forget today that economics was originally a branch of moral philosophy. Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) before An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Since then the main purpose of economics has been to intellectually grasp the major changes to society due to production, trade, markets, and so on in order to better steer policy and business strategy towards more fruitful equilibria. The discipline has a bad reputation among many “critical” scholars due to its role in supporting neoliberal ideology and policies, but it must be noted that this ideology and policy work is not entirely cynical; it was a successful centrist hegemony for some time. Now that it is under threat, partly due to the successes of the big tech companies that benefited under its regime, it’s worth considering what new lessons we have to learn to steer the economy in an improved direction.
The difference between an economic approach to the problems of the tech economy and either an ‘ethics’ or a ‘law’ based approach is that it inherently acknowledges that there are a wide variety of strategic actors co-creating social outcomes. Individual “ethics” will not be able to settle the outcomes of the economy because the outcomes depend on collective and uncoordinated actions. A fundamentally decent person may still do harm to others due to their own bounded rationality; “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Meanwhile, regulatory law is not the same as command; it is at best a way of setting the rules of a game that will be played, faithfully or not, by many others. Putting regulations in place without a good sense of how the game will play out differently because of them is just as irresponsible as implementing a sweeping business practice without thinking through the results, if not more so because the relationship between the state and citizens is coercive, not voluntary as the relationship between businesses and customers is.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to shifting the debate about technology ethics to one about technology economics is that it requires a change in register. It drains the conversation of the pathos which is so instrumental in surfacing it as an important political topic. Sound analysis often ruins parties like this. Nevertheless, it must be done if we are to progress towards a more just solution to the crises technology gives us today.