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The big technology companies cannot treat responsibility as an ‘externality’. It is no longer somebody else’s problem. It is theirs. It is ours.

‘Responsibility is Not My Problem’

Last week’s note talked about responsibility. To my mind, there is a distinction between liability – in the legal sense – and responsibility in the ethical sense.

Liability is a subset of responsibility – more limited and consistent with a law or regulation. Responsibility is more nebulous and has an ethical component.

With regard to smart devices, I detect an attitude to responsibility that makes me uneasy.  I am still struggling to clarify it but it is a disposition I see online that smart devices are helping migrate into the rest of our world.

At the moment, it reminds me the climate change debates of the late 90s and early 2000s. Then CO2 emissions were a negative externality to society. That is they reduced overall well-being for us and we did not receive compensation for that reduction. Nobody properly accounted for CO2, it cost no one person and production of it lay heavily on the resources of the commons.

Until suddenly it was an issue and had to be addressed.

The issue of live broadcasting death and killing on Facebook live is an instance that has solidified the comparison for me. Facebook has built a network of incredibly powerful tools for disseminating information rapidly throughout their network. They have increasingly automated it, removed taste and nuance in favour of statistical algorithms.

They did so to make it addictive (sticky) for users, enable discovery and make it easy for ads/brands to reach an audience. The lack of friction is part of the design. It is also a factor enabling the dissemination of really disturbing live video by clearly disturbed people.

Taking Responsiblity

When traumatic uses of the service arise like this, the large companies (c.f. Twitter) like to push back on this as an issue of individual responsibility. Like the corporates in the 90s who wanted to externalise environmental degradation, tech companies want to externalise responsibility. At least I think it is responsibility. Companies have to do more work to be responsible.

There is an empathetic dimension to this – it often appears that the companies are so driven by profit, quarterly goals and networks that they lose sight of the people at the heart of the enterprise. In order to sell more ads, the system has had to assume people are like a mechanistic system of levers and pulleys.

When you press here and pull there, they will click on the ad in front of them. A decade of treating users like lab rats to move more inventory has left Facebook bereft of a vision of the people at the heart of their network.

It might be a comforting conclusion to assume that here begins the revolution but I am not that naive. I think some people are already aware of and sick of Facebook (and/or Google, Twitter etc.) Others are fine with the trade-off or have internalised the human nature projected on them by Facebook.

In any event, I am pretty sure that evasion of responsiblity and the neoliberal instinct for making it the individual’s problem to fix, is why

This instinct matters to me because I see it surfacing in the attitudes (design and ethical) underpinning many of the forthcoming smart devices. They will have deeper, physical real-world impact and it is necessary to start demarcating the responsibilities of companies like Facebook and others and hold them to better standards.

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