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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Column: NEThics

“Don’t be evil” is the corporate slogan of Google. For a company that has been criticized for investing in joint ventures with the CIA and violating privacy and copyright laws, the slogan seems a little tongue-in-cheek. But maybe the slogan isn’t the ironic reflexive jab at corporate America that Google Inc. hopes it to be. It’s more likely the slogan isn’t a slogan at all, but a command. Google is telling you, “Don’t be evil.”

Google’s rise represents the emergence of philosopher-technocrats. Google, along with other tech-juggernauts like Facebook and Wikipedia, is revolutionizing society from the circuit board up. This revolution brings with it a new sense of ethics, how we live our lives.

In this way, it’s no accident that Google stores information about your location and every search you run. They operate from the belief that your willingness to share data about your preferences is directly related to their ability to provide the best search results. The more Google knows about you, the better they can do their job. That Facebook has made it exponentially easier to both broadcast your private life and invade someone else’s is similarly by design. Wikipedia was fully aware that public-access knowledge compiled by amateurs would replace the traditional research process. Each of these giants is making it easier to reach resources – be they search results, people or encyclopedic knowledge.

The way they revolutionize society is tied to the ethics of computer culture. In the same way economists everywhere go nerdy for free markets, programmers are dorks for open-source software. Open-source is a term used to characterize programs in which authors make the code used to develop them freely available to anyone who wants to see the behind-the-scenes production of software. If a piece of software is open-source, you can take the code, tinker with it, and make your own version of the software. Collaborative by its nature, open-source is championed by programmers who don’t want copyright issues or patents to get in the way of their latest idea. Open source computing is integral to the origin story of every major Internet revolution.

It’s only natural, then, that this love for open-source has mirrored the open-access promised by each product. The end result of Google is open access to information. The search engine indexes trillions of pages so that it’s easier to find nouns (people, places, ideas, etc). The end result of Facebook is open access to people. We populate our profile page with the minutiae of our personal lives while we scroll through our newsfeed to feed on the news of others. The end result of Wikipedia is open-access to public knowledge. This is true both for access given to people to contribute knowledge, as well as access the user has to knowledge.

This kind of open-access has a flattening effect, such that your access to resources is no longer a function of your status, but a product of your tech-savviness. Where you once needed to visit a library to access books behind their walls, you can search for the information on Google, or read it on Wikipedia. Where you once had to invest time in people to see their many layers, status updates can relay the intimate details of their life, unsolicited.

However, for this to work, you have to sacrifice some sense of your own privacy. Google logs your search history, along with location and a couple other personal characteristics. Unless you go through the pain of changing your Facebook privacy settings, any one of your friends can scroll through your life, online. That’s problematic for those people who want to present a professional face to the world, while still enjoying the fun of drunk status updates, scandalous pictures, explicit song lyrics and wall-photos from ICanHasCheesburger.com. There’s a term for these people, the ones who want to keep separate the “social” and “networking” of social networking websites. We call them students.

There’s a danger, then, in broadcasting our lives over platforms that have these implicit codes of conduct. Fortunately, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt gave some helpful advice in a CNBC interview: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Thanks, Big Brother.

Open-access is give-and-take, a new kind of social contract: we expose ourselves (giving up privacy, and sometimes intellectual property), making us just as accessible as the world we seek access to.

On his Facebook profile page, Mark Zuckerberg writes only one line in his bio: “I’m trying to make the world a more open place.” It’s worth considering whether you agree to his values, whether you, too, want the world to be a more open place. If you don’t subscribe to the changing sense of ethics, you might want to consider how your use of technology is refitting social values. To use technology without such thought is to let someone else remake society for you in their image. Every user on Facebook, entry on Wikipedia, Twitter-twit, and search on Google is a vote of confidence in their mission. Don’t let them be evil.

The title is a play on the words “Net” and “Ethics,” get it? If not, you can always reach RAJIV NARAYAN at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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