I’m Scott Bryan, a designer writing about ethics in tech. You’re reading this because you, most likely, signed up for my weekly newsletter, 1-2-3 Tech Miscellany.
If you find yourself here via some other serendipitous path, feel free to subscribe below.
Each week, I’ll introduce you to 1 ethical dilemma, 2 good news stories and 3 random quotes, tweets or other oddities.
Reading time: 4 minutes
Part 1 - Ethical Dilemma
Does Google “Do The Right Thing”?
Google no longer simply answers our most important (or dumbest) questions. They solve many more problems for us. From way-finding to home-minding, the tech giant offers a cornucopia of beautifully designed and convenient technologies we can’t do without.
Google however, also appear to be equally comfortable on the darker side of the ethical spectrum. And this could spell trouble for the future of humanity.
The human experience is Google's virgin wood, extracted and put to work in service of others.
This much we know.
But if their leaked (2016) video, entitled The Selfish Ledger,” is anything to go by, their intentions could prove much more sinister. It suggests they want to use that data to control peoples’ behaviour too.
Either way, it’s clear. Since their auspicious beginning over twenty years ago, Google have released a pandora’s box upon the world. Society are only now beginning to understand it’s contents.
But what if our negative interpretation of the box’s contents is flawed? What if it isn’t simply a healthy skepticism toward pervasive technology?
It’s not that big a leap to make:
Western culture has a long history of individualism, warlike use of technology and Christian apocalyptic thinking. Its popular culture also has an obsession with dystopian futures and technological apocalypse. Anyone remember The Terminator?!
Clearly, we have an in-built negative bias.
I wonder what a non-Western way of thinking about Google would look like?
It’s Not You It’s Me
By donning the hat of an Eastern philosopher - of Confucianism in particular, a more techno-utopian worldview merges.
In Confucianism, the state of reaching personhood is not predetermined. It can be attributed to nonhuman things, like robots, so long as they play ethically relevant roles in support of humankind.
This ideal abounds in popular culture of the Far East. Examples include Astro Boy, an iconic Japanese manga series running since 1950. It deals with sensitive technologies like robots as forces for good - as virtuous human companions.
If this is so, perhaps Google just needs time to get it's shop in order. Maybe it too, is starting to look eastward, so to speak.
Getting Better With Age
“At fifteen I set my heart upon learning.
At thirty, I had planted my feet firm upon the ground…
…At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart;
for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.”
At twenty-two years old, Google is a young company. Like Confucius in his teenage years, perhaps it has set it's “heart upon learning” from its mistakes. Maybe it’s only now, beginning to plant it's feet “firm upon the ground.”
From this vantage point, it could be said, there are encouraging signs the company are shifting their moral priorities in the right direction.
A powerful indication came in 2018, when Google ended it’s contract with the U.S. Department of Defence. Project Maven was a collaboration between Google and the military to build artificially intelligent drones for warfare.
They've also recently started banning far-right and fake news platforms from generating revenue from its lucrative ad platform.
Google continues to live up to their motto’s promise to "Do The Right Thing" in other areas too:
With the right intentions, Google’s Selfish Ledger could guide user behaviour toward positive actions, like environmental sustainability. In fact this is one of Google’s core values. Greenpeace’s Clicking Clean report, gave the company top marks for running its data centres entirely on renewables.
In a major development for privacy campaigners, Google announced they are integrating a new form machine learning technology called Federated Learning.
Basically, this method allows them learn about everyone without learning about anyone. It puts privacy first, meaning privacy nightmares like in this image can no longer happen:
Not everyone will agree on which side of the fence Google sits. One person’s “evil” may be another’s morally grey area. But at a time when AI fears abound, maybe Western thinking doesn’t have all the right answers after all.
Perhaps we must cast our gaze eastward, toward a brighter outlook on our technological future.
On the other hand, Google are so powerful, without oversight, if it decided not to abide it’s motto and “do the right thing," trouble abounds for humankind.
So, as Google continues to grow, let's hope its conscience doesn’t shrink, and it no longer oversteps “the boundaries of right.
Part 2 - Good news you may not have heard
The pandemic has made the web a kinder place
With the coronavirus sequestering us in our homes, many have been busy making friends online.
Strangers are hanging out together for anything from happy hours to book clubs and baking. When not engaging in late-night flirting, millions have even gotten creative between the Google Sheets, playing games, making pandemic pen pals, and co-ordinating grassroots movements.
These new forms of socialising have also made the internet feel less contrived - less instagramy, if you will. Celebrities speak to fans from unflattering angles, while virtual yoga sessions take place in unkempt living spaces.
Yes, there’s still the toxic spaces of social media platforms, but maybe, just maybe, when all of this is over, the internet will feel like a kinder place to visit.
Read more on MIT
Bridging The Communication Gap
Imagine being deaf or hard of hearing and trying to lip-read someone wearing a mask. Or how about video-chatting to friends without live captioning?
I think it's fair to say, the pandemic has made life even harder for the deaf and hard of hearing.
But circumstances are, slowly but surely, improving.
As the rest of the tech world plays catch-up, Ava are introducing a tool that automatically subtitles live conversations from any video chat app.
While designed specifically for the deaf community, this technology will benefit wider society too. Transcripts will enhance students' note-taking ability, while making video messaging easier for those with poor internet connections.
Read more on Business Insider
Part 3 - Quotes, Tweets And Oddities
Type it like this: #BlackLivesMatter
It only took 100 years.