Beyond Unintended Consequences
The past decade was a time of technological reckoning. Somewhere between Edward Snowden, Cambridge Analytica, and Black Mirror, millions of people awoke to an unsettling realization: technologies we barely understand affect our lives in consequential and unpredictable ways. Tech ethics, which had for decades been a largely academic conversation, became a grassroots movement. Suddenly, everyone was deleting their Facebook account and talking about the “unintended consequences” of technology. This focus on consequences became the animating spirit of the popular tech ethics movement.
For many reasons, this was a good place to start. Silicon Valley elites had for years peddled the myth that technology is ethically neutral; this myth had to be refuted, and highlighting the consequences of technologies was one way to accomplish this. Talk of unintended consequences also proved an effective rallying point for the popular tech ethics movement because such talk is largely unoffensive: it gives the ideological left and right a common enemy in the techno-elite and then allows this enemy to claim plausible deniability.
Consequence-talk continues to be a critical component of the tech ethics conversation. It will grow even more important over the coming decades as technologies like brain-machine interfaces, augmented and virtual reality, and quantum computing become ubiquitous. But while consequence-talk is necessary for creating a more ethical technological future, it is not sufficient. Too often, the logic of unintended consequences suggests that the root cause of a technological problem is the design of the technology itself. In fact, the roots of our technological problems almost always run deeper. Now is the time to dig up these roots.
As the popular tech ethics movement enters into this new decade, we must widen our lens to focus not just on the consequences of technology, but on the context of technology as well: the tapestry of assumptions, myths, systems, and behaviors against which innovation takes place. Many have already begun this work, some decades ahead of their time (Nicholas Carr, Langdon Winner, Albert Borgmann, Sherry Turkle, L. M. Sacasas, James Bridle, Fiona J. McEvoy, Cennydd Bowles, and Douglas Rushkoff come to mind). Now, we must build upon the ideas of these pioneers while cultivating a popular literacy and public imagination for these deeper questions.
We need to spend more time exposing the false assumptions of the digital revolution: that more information will always make us smarter, that more connections will always make us more social, that vast swathes of the physical world can be carved out and ported into the digital world without paying a price. We need to publicly interrogate the values that support today's status quo: the idolization of disruption, the single-minded pursuit of growth, the prioritization of profit over people, communities, and the planet. We need to boldly and persuasively refute toxic ideologies like technosolutionism, consumerism, and scientism.
We need to cultivate an awareness that many so-called "tech ethics problems" are merely symptoms of fundamentally flawed economic, political, and social systems. We need to admit to ourselves that modern technological marvels such as the smartphone, Amazon's distribution system, and the online advertising industry have only been made possible through the exploitation of human laborers, the pillaging of our planet, and the abuse of personal privacy. We need to look at our modern techno-consumerist-capitalist system with sober eyes and ask whether its benefits have been worth its costs. We need to ask ourselves whether this system is likely to produce a future that we actually want to live in.
Lastly, we need to realize that each of us has a personal responsibility to fight for change by reforming our own mindsets, behaviors, and habits. We must each confront our own willingness to cede our privacy and agency to corporations in exchange for minor conveniences. We must each admit to ourselves that our insatiable appetites for consumption have made us complicit in exploitative systems. We must each cultivate the virtue required to choose technological habits that bring genuine happiness and eschew those which merely bring amusement, distraction, and detachment.
As long as we continue to blame our technological problems on technologies themselves -- and on the tiny number of people involved in designing and developing them -- we will continue to propose only incremental improvements to the status quo. Such improvements are valuable but insufficient. To go deeper, we must learn to see with new eyes the contexts in which technologies are created and deployed: contexts constituted of philosophies, systems, and individual behaviors. Only then will we discover the sort of surprising, visionary ideas that we need to create fundamentally better futures.