Seth Godin posed it. We’re up for answering it. To paraphrase:
“Will technology steal one of humanity’s defining characteristics, agency – our ability to make a moral decision and take responsibility?”
He explained it thus:
“A soldier following orders is not a murderer, as he doesn’t have agency – society doesn’t generally want its soldiers questioning orders from our generals. But the industrial age has taken this absolution to ever-higher heights. Every worker in every job is given a pass, because he’s just doing his job. The cigarette marketer or the foreman in the low-wage sweatshop. As the industrial company sputters and fades, there’s a fork in the road. In one direction lies the opportunity to regain agency. In the other direction is the race to the bottom.”
So which way are we going?
For our money, technology will provide more opportunities for agency to disappear. If the Milgram Experiment taught us anything, it was that the combination of authority and technology will tend to lead us inflict harm – with potentially lethal consequences.
So more technology will somewhat inevitably provide more opportunity to become desensitised to the consequences of our actions.
But this isn’t a clincher. Opportunity isn’t causality.
As information technologies continue to pervade our lives, the consequences of our actions are also better-documented. The news travels wider, at a much faster pace.
Look at the moral panics that surround us every day. The Daily Mail’s coverage of ‘killer robots’ for instance. These panics create new taboos in the popular mind. And immediate backlashes. The consumer reaction to Starbuck’s reticence to pay tax in the UK was instant. Decisions made under these conditions may not be optimal but they do tend to prevent the targeted abuse.
Perhaps today’s announcement that Google will use Big Data and drone aircraft to help save endangered species is an example of how better information makes us more – not less – responsible? Because there is more we can actually do to help.
So where does that leave us? As eternal optimists we think the correct(ish) fork will be taken. A lack of moral responsibility may occur more often. But when it does it will be shorter-lived. And therefore less widespread.
This is not an entirely positive view. Yet it is not the race to the bottom Godin may fear.
Because humans do not want to be held up in public and criticised. So goodness knows how the boy who sold his kidney to buy an iPhone feels today. But his experience is useful because his decision may now be helping to create a moral mood around the practice that may well dissuade others.
Perhaps such disapprobation will also put us off an app featured in today’s headlines that lets us have a fantasy relationship with celebrities. Although – like drugs and pornography – it might just mean it gets used behind closed doors.
So hopefully other developments documented today will make bigger impacts. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner wants his company’s platform to: “digitally map the global economy, identifying the connections between people, jobs, skills, companies, and professional knowledge — and spot in real-time the trends pointing to economic opportunities.”
A sort of digital, economic cartography? But if his vision falls short perhaps making brains cells from wee will compensate? We’re certainly looking forward to free WiFi in London’s Black Cabs. And we’re sure the nano-tech condom that protects then disappears will make a positive contribution, while we’re very much looking forward to watching more geeks on TV.
OK! Fair cop! But we only said we weren’t afraid of the big questions. We didn’t say we specialised in them alone.