“Tool Without A Handle: Spirituality, Virtue, and Technology Ethics - Part 2”

This post visits some additional concepts of virtue found in Christian teaching supplementing concepts from other traditions such as Aristotle (natural law tradition), Buddhism, and Confucianism, namely:

  1. Consumer preferences are not always the same as consumer interests;
  2. Winning is not the most important thing;
  3. Solitude matters as much as engagement; 

We’re all aware sometimes what you want is not always the same as what’s good for you.  That point itself isn’t itself terribly helpful.  The real challenge is to know which is appropriate in a given case. Technology firms, though, have long considered it a foundational goal to surface and display “what users want most.”

This notwithstanding the point I addressed in my previous post, which is that people are not the rational homo economicus we think we are (or which some philosophers have contended).  Which is revealed by even a casual look at information online.  Most services, including weather, news, and sports sites, are festooned with tempting listicles, celebrity news, and “trend stories.”[1]

This is not to say I don’t occasionally indulge. Or that pleasure isn’t part of virtue. As Prof. Vallor explains in Technology and The Virtues, Aristotle (and other moral traditions) distinguish between willful restraint of wrong desires, and cultivation of joy in right desires.  Self-control is a means to an end, not the end itself.[2]

The goal, rather, is not only to choose good experiences, but additionally to develop moral perspective so that we can integrate pursuit of pleasure and of healthy self-discipline in making such choices.[3]

Similarly, when I argue winning is not the most important thing, that’s not to say there’s no value in winning, or in competition.  Rather, my point is these goals can get overemphasized in the design, marketing, operation, and use of networked information technology and the experiences those tools enable.

And, to apply Christian concepts to a virtue ethics for technology, I think it’s helpful to acknowledge Christian thought has a long tail of prudishness and censoriousness and overwrought ascetism to account for.  What Christian thought can also offer, though, is a frame to evaluate the balance between pleasure and discipline.

It does this, in part through a natural law concept that a human being has a telos  - a purpose or a design.  In this view, every human has both a unique “thisness” that makes every person sacred and worthy,[4] and that because of that it will be true for all humans that certain thoughts, ideas, and actions are beneficial (and others not) for human flourishing. 

The path to virtue is neither ‘sacrifice’ nor ‘winning’ themselves, rather it is to develop moral perspective as to the telos of a human being, so we can in turn integrate pleasure and discipline in our choices.[5]

As I’ve argued earlier in this space, tools create multiple affordances, some useful and some harmful.  And it’s impossible to craft a beneficial tool that is incapable of being used for harm.  Tools are also weapons.[6]

Consider online advertising. It is both the Internet’s “original sin,”[7] and the basis for the Internet’s wealth and innovation, including the consumer welfare Internet services have created.[8]  Online advertising itself does not inherently undermine virtue, but overweighting commercial profit through advertising can obscure other important goals for service design, operation, and use.  When we focus on “winning” we risk making everything into a competition.  When in some cases collaboration is more important.  Or humility and restraint.  Or charity.  Or even letting go. 

Similarly, when we focus on “engagement” as the “key performance indicator” for a given service, we limit the analysis of that service to qualities associated with commercial success, not necessarily with overall human flourishing. Even as a matter of commercial interests, it’s myopic to minimize the extent to which the service allows for disengagement – consumers also value “disengagement” features.[9]

And, recent events illustrate maximizing engagement for all participants isn’t ideal.  All platforms need to have tools to forcibly disengage problematic users from a platform if the tool is to serve human flourishing.  Most conspicuously where that user is using the platform to broadcast false claims of injustice and election fraud, and to intimate a violent response to such fraud could be justified.

And yet, the emphasis on “engagement” permeates not just the mental models employed by business, but libertarian views of free expression, i.e., maximizing participants in the “marketplace of ideas.” That emphasis also foregrounds “winning” – ideas are in competition and the goal is to let that play out without interference so the “best” idea will come to dominate the thinking of the group on a particular issue.  This is not only a business perspective, it’s a perspective animating both the political right’s objections to platform “censorship,”[10] and the political left’s calls for stronger antitrust action against Internet platforms.[11]

We’re coming around, I think, to a realization that a “marketplace of ideas” model suffers from many of the same flaws as the “rational man” model I discussed in my prior post.  Asking for more people to simply process information more rationally falls well short, in part because the people processing misinformation and conspiracies believe they are acting rationally.[12]

Indeed, it suffers not only from assumptions that humans process information through a strictly rational context, but that humans are universally well-intentioned.  A marketplace for goods only thrives because we have regulatory and litigation processes to enforce product safety, truth in advertising, and consumer protection.  A marketplace of ideas is no different, in that some actors will be malevolent.  And so, we’re now seeing serious discussion of new forms of regulation for that market.

One challenge for new models of regulation is lack of broad consensus as to what a healthy marketplace of ideas looks like. We don’t flourish so well if the airline industry were to differ as to how to calculate lift force, or pilots were free to disagree with air traffic control as to the proper runway.  We generally don’t have serious problems there, because there’s widespread agreement the purpose of an airplane is to fly safely from one point to another, and we can arrive at a scientific consensus as to what safe flight requires, and thus work out a political/policy consensus as to how much risk is acceptable and how much cost to impose. 

We know the purpose of an idea is to illuminate truth, but we don’t have consensus on what is truth, or on what limits we should place on strategic untruths (which have been a part of politics as long as humans have engaged in it).  Indeed, we don’t even have consensus on whether such truth is possible. 

’What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, who did not stay for an answer.”[13]

That passage comes from the Gospel of John,[14] and in its context the gospel writer is contrasting Pilate’s relativism and indifference with the statements of Christ preceding,[15] namely that Christ’s purpose is to testify to the truth.  Also, notice the context:  a very odd courtroom where it’s the witness who swears an oath to the truth, and the judge who dismisses that oath and opens the testimony to both truth and untruth. 

But then that’s the point I want to make about Christian teaching being useful.  Christian teaching is full of topsy-turvy observations:  the last shall be first, God becoming man, God seeking sinners instead of the righteous.  In considering this inverted perspective on values we can get perspective as to why “winning” a competition or “driving engagement” can seem unquestionably always good but in fact are not always so. 

In the Christian framework, there’s ample weight given to loss, surrender, sacrifice, and letting go. That’s not because these behaviors are somehow good in their own right, as if suffering were deserved.  Rather, it’s because they are precisely (though counter-intuitively) the path to success.  Each of the gospels were written at different times, by different authors, but each gospel contains some form of the exhortation that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life will save it.[16]

This can be read literally, for indeed in the 1st century a person pursuing Christian religious practices could easily irk the powers of Rome and find one’s life forfeit.  But in addition to reading this to mean “be prepared to die for your faith,”[17] this can be read to say “to get real control, you must give up control.” 

C.S. Lewis compared this relaxation of control to letting go of nervous self-consciousness when meeting people.  “In social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making,” he writes.[18]

Or, if you prefer, consider the Grateful Dead relinquishing control over tapes of their concerts.  The band could have attempted to maximize profits by “winning” a battle with fans to preclude unofficial taping of their shows and enforce copyright on sales of bootleg recordings.  Instead, they let go of control, and as a result profited more.  Doing so better drove alignment of interests between the group and its fans, reinforced its counter-culture brand identity, made it easier for both die-hard aficionados to find something new in the artists’ work, and made it easier for the uninitiated to be exposed.[19]

Turning to the concept of “engagement,” we also can see how an ethos focused on constantly driving connection also falls short of fully serving human flourishing.  Christian teaching (as does teaching from other traditions) values solitude, silence, and stillness.  Christian teaching rightly teaches there is value in fellowship as well, to be sure.  But the point is that fellowship or communion (or, more pointedly, growing attendance at one’s church or gaining social media followers) is not the only goal for a spiritual life.

Hence Jesus often “withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”[20]  And when he heard his performance of miracles had prompted the Jews of Capernaum to force him to be their king, he withdrew to be alone.[21]

One reason to consider silence and stillness as guideposts for virtue ethics is that silence and stillness disconnect our sense of value from our sense of accomplishment.  In stillness, we can connect with Being just as we are, with no work or achievement or need for anything other than ourselves.  Rather than working to seek approval or ease our anxiety or “fear of missing out,” we can release tension in our bodies, quiet our thoughts, and let go of attachments. 

And I note “bodies” intentionally.  It’s not only our minds that work better when treated to stillness and silence.  We have (thankfully) come a long ways from a vision of the Internet as one consisting solely of transactions, absent of matter or human bodies, where a “civilization of mind” would naturally be more humane.[22]  “Mind” has proved to be no more or no less able to create civilization among humans interacting through information tools than among humans interacting through other methods.

And this is because “minds” have certain limitations, as well as certain purposes.  Christian teaching helps by clarifying what those purposes are:  to recognize our minds and our bodies are aspects of a single “self,” that self is worthy on its own (despite, even because of, failures), that self is here not to compete, defeat or dominate dialogue with others, but to share with them the majesty of Being.  And that to relinquish control and to surrender to silence are gifts to human flourishing.

I realize that in some respects my exhortations to consider the value of serving consumer interests rather than preferences, cooperation rather than winning, and solitude rather than engagement may sound odd, given long-standing assumptions about technology businesses.  But I do think they are timely.

I have been involved, in some form, with the law and policy of the Internet since its creation in the early 1990s.  And so, I trust my instincts telling me that, given recent events, an era of Internet history is over. 

To be sure, that it is no longer safe to allow the President of the United States to communicate via social media says more about this President than it does about social media.  But there are many more like him, both presently and yet to come.  And, as well, a developing consensus that current approaches to our tools and their moderation are inadequate, even where there is disagreement as to whether moderation is too much or too little.[23]

If the only values applied to Internet services are to “give people what they want,” “win followers and ads at all costs,” and “maximize reach and engagement” we will be vastly underequipped to deal with the problems those services – and the people who use them - would create, both presently and yet to come. And we will fail to respond to our present moment, one characterized by trauma, wounding, and loss that should indeed motivate us to pursue new thinking and new approaches.

Warning labels applied to harmful misinformation posts, for example, are an initial way to recognize that consumer interests matter more than their preferences. Yes, people may well engage more readily with false and controversial information, but they do so at their peril.  Platforms with more sensationalist content may well win more viewers and advertisers, but in winning that competition they risk failing at the objective of fostering healthy conversation, as some platforms have already acknowledged.[24]

What success looks like in the next era of the Internet isn’t known, but I am highly confident it will look very different than when our current major platforms entered the market. There are a variety of important and interesting groups and efforts looking at how to shape technology services in ways that better serve humans.[25] By focusing on user interests, rather than preferences, and on social welfare rather than competition, it’s likely we will identify additional ways to improve services in ways that neither overly rely on “media literacy,” nor remove incentives for users to read and think critically.   

[1]See “Tool Without a Handle: Tools, Trends, Technology,” (“Tools, Trends and Technology”) online at: https://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blog/2020/05/tool-without-handle-tools-trends-technology (“As readers are acutely social animals, inclined to orient their actions based on cues from other people, trend stories are catnip to readers”).

[2]Shannon Vallor, Technology, and the Virtues (Oxford University Press, 2016)(hereinafter “Technology and the Virtues”), p.123.

[3]Id., pp. 150-151.

[5]Id., pp. 150-151.

[6]“Tool Without a Handle:  Book Review, ‘Tools and Weapons’,” online at: https://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blog/2019/11/tool-without-handle-%E2%80%9Cbook-review-tools-and-weapons%E2%80%9D

[7]Ethan Zuckerman, “The Internet's Original Sin,” The Atlantic, August 14, 2014, online athttps://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/08/advertising-is-the-internets-original-sin/376041/

[8]The online advertising sector generated, by one estimate, $322.5 Billion (US dollars) in the year 2020, and is projected to reach $640.2 Billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 10.3%.   https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/global-digital-advertising-and-marketing-industry-301093781.html  Online advertising also adds value for traditional “brick and mortar” companies as well, given the extent to which consumers go online to review a business before deciding to make a purchase.  For smaller businesses, it’s a more effective use of limited ad dollars. 

[9]Apple’s iOS for example, offers “do not disturb” settings https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT204321.  My employer, T-Mobile, offers a “Family Mode” service that allows for various time limit and “bedtime” or “dinner time” settings that disable Wi-Fi connectivity to the Internet (while still allowing 911 calls if needed).  See https://www.t-mobile.com/offers/t-mobile-family-mode

[11]See, e.g., MarketWatch, “Big Tech has an antitrust target on its back, and it is only going to get bigger,” December 10, 2020, online at https://www.marketwatch.com/story/big-techs-antitrust-woes-will-continue-to-grow-but-will-it-actually-matter-11607628425; The Economist, “Regulating Big Tech Makes Them Stronger, So They Need Competition Instead,” online at: https://www.economist.com/open-future/2019/06/06/regulating-big-tech-makes-them-stronger-so-they-need-competition-instead

[12]See, e.g., danah boyd, “You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You?,” Points: Data and Society, online at: https://points.datasociety.net/you-think-you-want-media-literacy-do-you-7cad6af18ec2; this thread by Cynthia Lee makes a variety of points along the same lines (and I found it excellently links misinformation, racial justice, and democratic issues): https://twitter.com/crystaljjlee/status/1347257503659118594?s=20

[13]Francis Bacon, Of Truth (Essays, Civil and Moral (1625); see “Tool Without a Handle: Trustworthy Tools”, online at: https://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blog/2017/01/tool-without-handle-trustworthy-tools.

[14]John 18:38

[15]John 18:37 (“in fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth hears me”).

[16]Mark 8:35; see also Matthew 10:39; Luke 9:24.  The Gospel of John says, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

[17]See, e.g., 2 Timothy 3:12; Acts 7:56.

[19]See, e.g., Livia Gershon, JSTOR Daily, (June 4, 2015), “The Grateful Dead, Tape Trading, and the Music Industry,” online at:  https://daily.jstor.org/grateful-dead-tape-trading-music-industry/; https://www.npr.org/2015/07/05/419547514/the-grateful-deads-laid-back-yet-surprisingly-shrewd-business-plan

[20]Luke 5:16

[21]John 6:15

[22]John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” online at: https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence; see also Jacob Silverman, “Meet The Man Whose Utopian Vision for the Internet Conquered, and then Warped, Silicon Valley,” Washington Post (March 20, 2015), online at: https://wapo.st/36ePEpg (noting how the early days of the Internet were suffused with expectations of a revolution in social relations and culture).   That revolution would come, as would a counter-revolution, both in the form of pushback from sovereigns and others on the claim of freedom from their sovereignty, and in the form of culture critics arguing the utopian beliefs were rooted in delusions.  See, e.g., Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion, (Public Affairs, 2010); online at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10003400-the-net-delusion

[23]See, e.g., Braden R. Allenby, Information Technology and the Fall of the American

Republic, 59 JURIMETRICS J. 409–38 (2019) online at: https://bit.ly/3p6bhyY; Darrell West, Brookings Institution, “The Role of Misinformation in Trump’s Insurrection,” online at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2021/01/11/the-role-of-misinformation-in-trumps-insurrection/; Bronwyn Howell, “Social media, censorship, and coddling internet users,” online at: https://www.aei.org/technology-and-innovation/social-media-censorship-and-coddling-internet-users/

[25]See, e.g., Mobius https://mobi.us.org/; Center for Humane Technology, https://www.humanetech.com/; FaithTech, https://faithtech.com/






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