Does Technology Need to Have a Conscience?
I was going to do a post about how much the technology I work on scares me sometimes, but I think this post leads me to take a different tack. So that one comes later.
First, take a look at this:
Modern internet journalism is terrible and full of trivial clickbait designed for Facebook, says Mike Hudack, director of product management at, um, Facebook.
Of course, he didn’t quite phrase it like that.
Writing on (where else?) Facebook, Hudack takes aim at a mainstream media which he says has become a “hollowed out” husk: derivative, and lacking any depth and confidence. Then he pours scorn on old media’s would-be replacements, like Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post and Vice.
Well, that’s kind of funny, and started me down the path of my first post idea, but then I got to this:
Yes, somebody should. But who might this “somebody” be? Facebook has done nothing to ameliorate the trends Hudack decries, and plenty to encourage them. Facebook profits enormously from encouraging lowbrow click-bait. Its entire revenue apparatus is designed around quantity, not quality.
It’s one of those fabulously un-self-aware remarks that Silicon Valley web titans specialise in. Eric Schmidt told us that we should change our identity to escape Google’s crawlers, move house to avoid Google’s Street View cameras and took a weird pride in how Google creeped people out.
So… honestly, I’m torn. There’s a difference between technology and engineering. Engineering is, essentially, about not killing people. Elevators don’t fall down or close doors on limbs. Cars get safer and safer even as they get more powerful. Computers don’t shock people if there’s a malfunction (other, perhaps, than mis-entering a web address and getting to the “wrong” kind of site).
Technology, on the other hand, is what engineers create to advance the world while not killing people. Technology doesn’t have a lot of conscience. It shouldn’t. In fact, one of the bigger debates these days is what kind of conscience you have to put into a self-piloted vehicle if it has to choose what damage to do in an accident. That’s another post too…
So, do the creators of new technology have a responsibility for how it’s used? Yes, to a limit. It needs to be safe, with safeguards, and protect the lives and essential well-being of the users. It doesn’t have to appeal to the flowering sensitivities of everyone in the world, mostly because a good engineer is only up for miracles three days out of five.
That said, if there’s a problem, you’re supposed to fix it. Can Facebook really fix the schlock that’s hitting us through new media sites? Likely, not if it wants to continue to rake in revenue. And Facebook is — hey, get this! — a public company, responsible for revenue.
So, it’s a dicey little world out there. Don’t be sucked in by headlines.