#29: Brain Food

Drones, blurry faces and a sticky situation

Hi there,

Change is afoot.

I want this ethics-in-tech newsletter to taste more like a souffle - light and fluffy but with interesting flavours upon which to ruminate. So, for this week’s post, I'm experimenting with a new method. 

The recipe is simple:

  • 1 part - chewed and stewed ethical dilemma

  • 2 parts - tempered good news story

  • 3 parts - sugar-coated quotes, tweets or other oddities


Reading time: 7 minutes

Part 1 - Ethical dilemma

Am I Going To Hell For Using Ad Blocking Software?

This is my desktop. It's a metaphor for my digital life. You see, I'm a clean freak - an Online Compulsive Declutterer if you will.

I keep all notifications turned off on my phone. I don’t see ads online because I block them, and here’s a photo of my pristine YouTube page.

For me, it's all about timeliness, rather than "all of the time". I want control over what I see and when I see it, as much as I possibly can. My waning willpower and short attention span are challenges enough without unwanted distractions online. 

Having said that, I recently met with an online existential crisis, of sorts.

With ad blocker turned on as usual, I launched my favourite, free, online file-transferring tool, Wetransfer - only to see this message:

It made the moral fibres on the back of my neck stand up. 

I wondered, if I regularly use, and cherish, a free online service, shouldn't I at least let them serve me ads?

Wetransfer are one of the most considerate of attention seekers. They take less data and give more privacy than most online businesses I know of.

Their ads don’t stalk you around the web, making false assumptions. Nor are they of the spray and pray vintage. They also give away 30% of their advertising space to support artists, musicians and designers. 

Their ads are so beautiful, interesting and unique, I'd gladly while the time away, with my trigger happy finger on the refresh button, just to see another campaign. And another. Aaaaand maybe just one more. You know how it goes. 

And before I know it, I’ve lost a shit-load of time. 

I'm a fan of Wetransfer, and I’m not going to lie, their polite request to stop blocking their ads made me feel guilty.

But should I oblige them, I wondered?

Ethics For Dummies

For the answer to this ethical quandary, I hauled out my tattered ethics 101 instruction manual from under my pillow.

And this is what it told me:

There are three pillars of modern ethics: utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics. Herein lies the answer.

But what do these terms mean?

Imagine a scenario where you have the chance to save a bunch of people from a pyscho killer, by popping a proverbial cap in his ass. What would you do?

  • A utilitarian would pull the trigger because the psycho killer's death would maximise well-being.

  • A virtue ethicist would ask, "would I be happy for my decision to be plastered all over tomorrow's news?”, before nodding in the affirmative and promptly neutralising the psychopath with a single shot to the head.

  • A deontologist would refuse outright because killing is wrong in all circumstances.

But how do they relate to my own to-block-or-not conundrum? Let’s take a closer look.

The Utilitarian

The utilitarian is a crowd pleaser. He wants his actions to make as many people happy, as often as possible. 

Relating to my quandary, he says “the less distracted society is, the happier they are."

He’s right. An ad-free web is a happier web - even if it means companies lose out in brand awareness and sales.

He also observes; "a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right."

We’ve gotten so used to the intrusions of the digital attention economy, it seems normal. But their goals differ wildly from our own. They want a captive audience, clicking, tapping and scrolling on their products as much as possible. We, on the other hand, have dreams to tend to.

In the short term, distractions are annoying, for sure. They keep us from doing what we desire. In the longer term however, they accumulate, making us attentionally destitute.

Playing devil’s advocate, the utilitarian asks, "Why not show more self-discipline?”

This “it's all about self-control” trope gets on my wick!

Online advertising is a multi-billion dollar industry, with some of the best psychologists, technologists and marketeers experts at capturing your attention.

What chance have I or anybody else, against such power, other than a promise to try harder next time?

The Virtue Ethicist

The virtue ethicist takes a different approach to the problem. He has a knack for finding the sweet spot in everything he does. Never too much. Never too little.

With one exception - he's really annoying.

You see, he talks in riddles. I need to know what I should do, but he keeps telling me what I should be. I think of the bigger picture, but he just thinks of himself.

His defence?

"When everyone realises how awesome I am, they'll copy me. Then we'll all be awesome together."

To be awesome, he insists "you must be honest, fair, and generous in your actions.”

That's virtue-ethicist-speak for - you're using a free service for your own benefit, without a care for the people behind the software. So, unless you’re destitute, and need the service to survive, you’re stealing.

Firstly, I'm no more stealing than the telly addict who holds his pee until the ad break. Secondly, advertisers steal too. They steal your attention.

At the end of the day, I'm blocking ads not emergency aid, and if stealing is a virtue when you're starving, then I'm ravenous. The attention economy keeps trying to feed me crap.

The Deontologist

Things get a little awkward when the deontologist pipes up. He's uppity.

“How could you use an ad blocker?" he wails. "Advertisers have kids to feed too, you know! You consented to give your attention in return for a free service, and now you’re wriggling out of it. That's immoral in my book!"

“The kids will be fine without me.” I reply. “And the type of person who uses an ad blocker is probably never going to buy what's advertised anyway.”

"But what if everyone blocked ads?" the deontologist retorts. "Companies like Wetransfer might have to charge everyone for their service, discriminating against those can't afford to pay.  Worse still, maybe they'd go bust, forcing people out of jobs."

Over 25% of internet users use ad-blockers, so admittedly, it’s no small problem for the industry. And maybe jobs could be lost too if the percentage keeps climbing. Although slightly different circumstances, just look at the news media for a case in point.

But criticising people who block ads, is like Philip Morris blaming their customers for lost revenue, when they simply stopped smoking because it’s bad for your health.

A Fairer Exchange

Just like protecting yourself from a pscyho killer, ad blocking is itself, a form of self-defence. And I'm firmly in the utilitarian's corner for this fight.

Unlike smoking, ad blocking, is not a health hazard. It's a health benefit, caring for the quality of your attention. 

Not only should we install ad blocking software, we have a moral obligation to do so.

This duty of care can only change, when service providers prioritise intention over attention. This means online products are offered with ad blocking as default, and any kind of persuasion is presented as opt-in, not opt-out.

But look, I get it. Wetransfer deserves my custom. And when they're not getting it from my data, wallet, or eyeballs, something's got to give.   

But until either there’s a seismic shift in online business culture, or I'm lowered into the fiery abyss, ad blocking is a firm vote, cast by me, against the attention economy. 

Links to privacy tools I use

Ad blocker | Tracking blocker | Distraction-free YouTube

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Part 2 - Good News You Probably Haven’t Heard

Blurred Lines

Privacy-focused messaging app Signal has launched a new blur tool for faces. They pitch it as “a new way to make Signal more helpful for everyone on the street right now.” 

I wonder how many other messaging and social media apps will offer the same capability.

In the physical world, Signal are also helping people “encrypt” their face, by distributing face coverings to protestors.

I love Signal's tagline: Speak freely. Stay safe. Send a message.

Read more on Signal

Send In The Drones, Where Are The Drones?

Barack Obama’s ancestral home, the humble midland town of Moneygall, Ireland, has become one the first places in the world to receive medical supplies by drone.

Spiriting medicine to vulnerable people cocooned in their homes, drone startup Manna Aero, is providing a valuable community service during a pandemic.

While I’m not so sure about the company’s "zero human-contact” promise in a post Covid-19 world, as technology encourages us to swap physical presence for pixelated parlance, it will be interesting to see where such experiments lead.

Read more on Forbes

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Part 3 - Quotes, tweets and oddities

  1. We are kept from our goal not by obstacles, but by a clear path to a lesser goal. – Robert Brault


Thank you for reading.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Good, bad or indifferent, your feedback is invaluable.

  1. Is it too long?

  2. Is there anything you'd put in/ leave out?

  3. Any other thoughts?

I’m especially interested in suggestions you might have, be they tech-related ethical conundrums keeping you up all night, or oddities from the digital world, you feel like sharing.

Otherwise, until next week, stay safe.

Scott