February 18, 2021
by Harri New
At the end of last year I attended my first remote conference; the Women in Technology World Series, the highlight of which was the talk: “The Ethics Crisis in Tech – how to protect public trust in a world of increasing disruption” from decision scientist Nicole Helmer. The basis of this talk was to stress the urgency in exacerbating ethical concerns that have emerged as a result of corporations' need to attract and impress users with little regard for long term social implications. I find this topic enormously interesting - my main reasoning for entering the technical space was the desire to drive for more accountancy in regard to long term societal need. It is also a rather ‘hot’ topic in cultural conversation with Netflix releasing multiple documentaries over the last couple of years exploring the morals of data ownership and questionable design principles. It is apparent that we are witnessing a growing awareness of the flaws within the tech utopianism vision, though awareness does not equate to change, as simultaneously the big tech corporations continue to monopolise every inch of our everyday behaviour with very little resistance.
Helmer explores the why of this by talking us through a number of examples to understand how value chains emerge, the reliance on individual decision making and how even the most responsible technologies might fail to comply with their ethical obligations. Starting with the most infamous example of ethical misjudgement: Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook’s blasé attitude to editorial ethics was made blatant in the selling of user base access (to Cambridge Analytica) and the distance they maintained from anything posted on their platform. Facebook followed user demands and solely focused on amassing clicks and as a result, landed in legal hot water.
Helmer warned of the repercussions of allowing the user to guide technology’s ethical responsibilities showing how it leads companies to be ‘at best reactive — and, at worst, too late to chart the right course.’ Individuals often choose short term, quick wins over the more laborious option that would provide more indirect benefit in the long-term, thus it falls to the company rather than the user to hold responsibility. Unfortunately, this is often not the case, with companies (particularly those built under the libertarian guise of free-speech) absolving themselves of obligation in order to protect their user experience and bottom line. It is my opinion that the placing of duty on the user to always make the informed choice is not just poor governance, but deliberate ignorance.
Helmer demonstrated how the rise of modularization has resulted in the diffusion of responsibility for the ethical outcomes. Modularization is the goal for many technologies; breaking up the system allows for faster innovation and has proven to be more strategically advantageous. Yet this breaking up of the value chain has not only meant that holding anyone accountable for ethical misfires has become incredibly slippery, but that user protections are, often unintentionally, sidestepped in the pursuit of innovation and efficiency.
Helmer finished her talk by suggesting some solutions to the problem, in a statement directed to the next wave of technical innovators and entrepreneurs she encouraged to think not just as a disruptor to the current system, but to work backwards, assuming your technology is dominant and identifying potential loopholes and how they could be tackled. The innovation process should be started with these solutions in mind. Her talk did leave me to ponder the ominous future where these ethical considerations are not tackled, this image acts now as a driver to defiantly incorporate more social protections in designing and building future products.
I thoroughly enjoyed Helmer’s talk and I would highly recommend looking into her work, not only did she offer a thoughtful insight but it also reignited a passion within me- prompting further exploration into the ethics of tech.
For more about the The Women in Technology World Series checkout their website
And here for more of Helmers work on the crisis of ethics in technology innovation