Third Worshipful Company of Information Technologists Colloquium
on the
Ethical and Spiritual Implications of the Internet

17 February, 2000 --- House of Lords

Harold Thimbleby, Middlesex University, LONDON

The Internet is a much bigger thing than any we are used to thinking about --- it is the largest single thing humans have ever built (and the Y2K problem was the most expensive single problem ever to face humanity). We will have to come to terms with its great size, its multinational, multicultural diversity, and how it is impacting, and going to impact us --- and what we should do. It is often asked whether the Internet poses new ethical problems, say, in comparison with the industrial revolution. This is a sterile debate: the industrial revolution is history; the Internet and its impact is unfolding in front of us. We can stand up to do some worthwhile things about the Internet now --- and one of the most important things, in my view, is to clearly assert the ethical and spiritual impact it has on our lives.

Many people argue that the Internet neither has ethics nor raises ethical issues, just like electricity does not have ethics, for ethics is about what humans do. This view is wrong. By denying ethics has anything to do with technology, we do not stop to think about whether technological progress is good; it just has to be followed. Of course, whether something is good or bad is in fact an ethical judgement in itself, and raising the ethical question suggests, amongst many things, that there may be alternatives to following progress just because we have to. For humans develop and design technology, and the rest of us need not be pulled along by them: we can influence the direction it takes, if we stop to think about which directions are better for people. We could develop our own ideas, and help direct progress where we want it to go. Secondly, denying ethics is relevant shifts the discussion away from technology and its potential problems, which then becomes "just is." The result of this shift is that technologists just do what they like, and then people have to sort out the consequences. It would be better if ethics was considered much earlier in the technological development process, for it is clear that developments in computers and communications are impacting us.

It is much easier to see errors in thinking when they are someone else's. The second, fallacious, line of argument is analogous to how the US National Rifle Association would like to argue that guns do not kill people, but people do, and that therefore there is nothing bad about guns themselves. To those of us outside the United States, this argument seems to be evasive: clearly, guns and gun making have a serious influence on what damage people can do to each other. Yes, people are responsible for what happens to each other, but guns make some possible courses of action and outcomes more likely, and more extreme. Children do things with guns we would not like to hold them responsible for; if so, then the availability of guns to children is an ethical issue, closely related to the design, manufacture and distribution of guns. In short, technology (whether guns or computer networks) has an ethical impact on people.

The analogy with guns is a bit harsh. Guns are meant, at least sometimes, to kill people, whereas computers typically are meant to help people get on with their work and fun (though there are now computer chips being put in guns to make them socially more acceptable).

With computers we are dealing with a powerful technology and we must, while acknowledging our excitement with it, try to assess the benefits and risks clearly. In particular, we need to understand how we fail to appreciate the issues objectively because of the way computers and networks affect our thinking.

Here is a simple example of woolly thinking. Computers bring benefits; therefore we must have more computers. Indeed, the Government has set itself targets of having more computers. Wouldn't it have been better to have set targets to have more benefits? Just having more computers does not bring the benefits automatically.

We hear a lot of success stories about the Internet. We do not hear much about failures, even though there are far more of them. One reason is because the Internet is a communications medium, and when things stop working, they stop communicating, so we can't hear about them. In short, our perception is biased towards the success stories. Indeed, all the magazines and the rest of the media pick out successes to tell us. Our senses are bombarded with net success.

When we see something happening a lot, with hardly any counter-examples, we naturally assume that it is likely. This sort of thinking is normally reliable: if you see lots of trees, there are lots of trees. But the fallacy is that our senses are fooled. I call this the lottery effect: because the lottery exploits this perceptual bias, and many people are fooled. If the media published failures as well as successes, we would much better appreciate the staggering odds against us if we chose to bet on winning a million. What we see, when it is mediated --- by the net or by a newspaper --- is not an objective view. So when we see and hear about lots of successes on the Internet, but the medium is filtering out failures, our thinking is biased.

Our perceptions are strong things; our survival depends on them. We are naturally inclined to be optimistic and hopeful. We tend to focus on success.

Now, a lot of success is concentrated at the top of pyramids. Bill Gates, to take just one phenomenally successful example, is held up as a role model. He runs a big pyramid, and for every one Gates there must be hundreds of millions of people who aren't. That means holding him up as a role model is misleading. If the pyramids are so big, there cannot be very many of them. Indeed, there is not enough wealth in the world to build many more pyramids so successful! Very few people can be a Gates.

To my mind what is important is not the view from the top --- for only one person can be there --- but whether we are content with the structure. One of the potential problems is that computers are so good at building pyramids, we lose sight of the humans because we want to build in the way technology encourages.

In the old days, say, if two banks merged, you would need practically the same number of staff to maintain the banks' customer base. But computers mean that any duplication of services can be combined, consolidated or rationalised. The point I want to make is that computers are good building blocks for social pyramids. Computers readily build enormously wide pyramids, and these pyramids have human consequences, like redundancies.

Ecommerce is another computer pyramid example (ecommerce being defined recently as home catalogue shopping with a phone bill). Ecommerce businesses employ very few people, and they have astronomical valuations. In fact, lottery-scale valuations. The base of Internet pyramids is potentially as wide as the spread of the Internet. No wonder we are in awe over ecommerce.

In the old days, we would go into a bank, and every minute we spent interacting was a minute a skilled clerk spent with us. The rules and forms had to be simple enough for us all to understand! Then computers were introduced, and their advance was that the clerk became deskilled, and therefore cheaper, and the bank manager lost knowledge of their customers, and discretion to treat them as individuals. Then there were cash machines, less human contact. Now there is net banking.

I tried paying my credit card off on the net. It took me 35 minutes to get the transaction done. Nobody in Visa sees the time I take; they have no reason to make it easier; in fact, while I was spending time on-line, they were advertising at me. So we see, over time, a transfer from a reciprocal world of one-to-one relationships in local banks, to one that off-loads work onto customers, in the name of choice or whatever, but which increases profit for central operations.

Why did it I take so long? Simply because, provided I get the transaction done it does not matter to the bank how complex the system is for me; indeed, the more complex it is, the more they can control me --- that's just standard confusion marketing. Paying off my credit card involved me using two passwords, one of about 30 digits.

It took me a few more minutes to find out how to email Visa (they don't want correspondence). I got a computer-written reply, asking me to quote another long number in any further correspondence. I persevered, and finally gave up when they said they had experts design the web site, and therefore it was state of the art, as if that would justify it. Wouldn't it be a good idea if Visa allowed its customers to talk to each other, as they could in the old corner banks, and then they would probably see their customers as humans with minds, rather than as purely etransactions.

So, as all pyramids go, most people are not at the top. Most people, by definition, are subtly exploited. But we dream ourselves into the shoes of these high-profile role-model people running ecommerce stuff, which we all ought to be doing, we think, or else we will get left behind. Strangely the losers admire the winners.

There are many more examples of pyramids, and not just as economic organisations. The Internet facilitates pyramids whose bases are multinational and cross-cultural --- and they are particularly easy to spot when we personally do not agree with them! However, whether pyramids are good or bad, I've dwelt on them because they nicely raise clear ethical issues.

If we are utilitarians, absolutists, virtue ethicists, business ethicists, whatever, I think we would disagree on the moral implications of issues like pyramids --- if you like, when you climb to the top of one, you can see in lots of directions, and there are all sorts of rationalisations for the views from them. One ethical idea I think has some merit for this sort of debate is reciprocity.

"Do unto others as you would have them do to you." This is the Golden Rule, and it is what reciprocity is about. What I do to you, you can do to me, and vice versa. We can see at once that pyramids unbalance reciprocity.

What is interesting is that reciprocity is about several people; talking about reciprocity counteracts our natural tendency to focus on one person alone. Whenever we see people interacting, we can ask is reciprocity promoted, or is it hindered. Where is the other person? What they take, do they also give? Is the reciprocity negotiable? And so on.

Reciprocity is a good principle for debate, because you are always asked "what is the relationship," and this invites understanding of other peoples' views. If there are benefits on one side of a relation, why not on the other side? Reciprocity is clearly a crucial issue in any debate on privacy. So, unlike many other ethical slogans, it isn't just a sophisticated name for a prejudice so much as a universal way of looking at situations and highlighting ethical issues. It is about fairness, and most people would like to promote it.

Let's turn from the human side of pyramids to the computers they are made of, for computers are much more than passive building blocks. They are practically alive! In many ways computers latch into our psyches, and meet --- or almost meet --- some of our deepest needs. Rather like idolatry does.

Idolatry is where, instead of worshipping God, we worship some false god, something that is not a god at all. We want it to rain tomorrow, so we sacrifice a lamb on the altar of the god. But tomorrow maybe it doesn't rain, and the priest says we should have sacrificed a bigger lamb or more of them. Somehow the failure of the god becomes our failure, and sure enough, next day there we are buying more sheep to sacrifice.

Isn't this exactly what goes on with computers? First, they are promoted as perfect things. Then, when we discover they don't work, we think it's our fault, and the solution is for us to learn more about the right incantations, and when that doesn't work, rather than buying sheep we buy more RAM or get a newer even more perfect computer.

Although they may fulfil psychological needs, ultimately idols are a disappointment. Building bigger idols does not make them work better; we know that when we think about it! The problem is we never like to admit anything we idolise is an idol.

Does idolatry have any practical consequences? I think here there are two.

First, everyone seems to think that computers are perfect, and that any problem can be solved by them. I am thinking issues like trying to use filters to solve moral problems. There are some things that, technically, are non-computable, they're impossible to program completely and correctly. While we expect computers to have the omniscient powers of small gods, we are going to be disappointed, and probably pass more and more restrictive laws in the (false) hope that profound human problems can be solved by machines.

(A start to being more realistic would be to require "no legislation without implementation" --- so at least legislation would follow the evidence, rather than the hope, that its requirements on computer systems is feasible.)

Secondly, when today's computers fail, we are still attached to the idea that tomorrow's will be better. Every year computers are presented as solving our problems (just like gods are supposed to solve all our problems), yet the following year they are obsolete (just as we discover tomorrow --- never today --- that the idol doesn't work).

If I have a flat tyre on my car and take it to the garage, the last thing I'd expect them to say is "Ooh, that's an obsolete car! Buy a new one, and that way you get five new tyres, and a new GPS thing." Yet we do that all the time with computers! We cannot carry on solving our problems by disposing of the old ones, blaming ourselves, and trying to buy better solutions. The landfill sites, in the UK are already burying over a million tons of electronics each year. This is idolatry that is not sustainable, and with an EU directive (WEEE, "Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment") that comes into force around 2003, it will not be legal either. Those millions of tons of electronic rubbish represent a lot of fooled people.

Well, of course we know technology is not uniformly good. How often does your computer crash? We know, when we think about it, that many wonderful technologies have darker sides: pesticides, nuclear power, the car, and so on ... All were technologies that were presented in their day as inevitable goods, but which later turned out to present rather trickier problems than their proponents expected. Computers aren't any different.

While we are blind to the ethical and spiritual issues, we will continue to blindly follow so-called progress, having no idea where we are progressing to. The question to ask, is not whether technology is good, but how are we going to do good, given that we live in a world where computers and nets are expected to be, but are not, perfect solutions to anything?

Let me finish by giving one answer to that question: we need a consumer movement that is aware of these sorts of issues, and a system of standards so we can speak in a clear language. Cars used to be promoted as fast and wonderful; the 1960s consumer movement forced them to be safe, and to be better for consumers. Likewise, we now need a social force that doesn't spend its time focused on the pinnacles of success, but which represents most peoples' ordinary lives. No doubt it would use the best community-building technologies of the Internet, but its purpose, as I see it, would be to help us to hope in each other today, rather than hope in the illusion of perpetually fixing today's problems with tomorrow's computers.

Further reading

Cybernauts Awake! Ethical and Spiritual Implications of Computers, Information Technology and the Internet, Church House Publishing, 1999. ISBN 0 7151 6586 0. £5.95.

Outline thoughts

We confuse specialised knowledge for wisdom * Drama effect & media equation * Non-economic pyramids: complexity, information (e.g., police) * The UK spent 25 billion on the Y2K problem; the Financial Times said at least we upgraded our computers. * With Visa's web site --- which is typical --- not only has the human side of the business vanished from sight, but our interaction with other customers has been forbidden. * Contrast with Amazon (you can write reviews of books, their products) for other users; recommender systems * Put another way, reciprocity is universalisable, and therefore a good principle for debating the almost universal reach of the Internet. * Privacy * Citizenship, human rights, multinational corporations * Police as an information organisation. * Traditional rights (cryptography, gloves). * Social exclusion. Not just access and equipment, but in complexity of technology * homogeneity.