Welcome back! Now that our unannounced hiatus is over, let’s dig into this week’s issue. 2021 seems to provide a never-ending stream of tech ethics news, and this issue is a bit of a potpourri of recent topics that have come across our desks.
This week: How social media is replacing local newspapers. Why the power structures created by mass surveillance are problematic. The New Californian Ideology, and why white supremacy is being baked into our technology. And the unintended side-effects of productivity technology.
This article from Medium’s OneZero examines how the Nextdoor app has all but replaced the local newspaper as a source for neighborhood information–but without the fact-checking and professionalism such papers provide. This is an excellent reminder of how “disruption” of older industries isn’t the unqualified good the tech industry often presents it as being.
> Posts warning of crime and “suspicious” people arrive in Nextdoor feeds devoid of the context that a good local reporter might add, such as putting local crime rates in historical perspective or noting root causes such as unemployment or cuts to social services. “You get the sense that people enjoy and find the site’s value in the work of policing other people,” Kurwa told me. “You see these escalations or these mini-one-day panics over someone being ‘out of place,’” which are often racially tinged.
Over twenty years ago, Jonathan Franzen wrote an essay in which he was somewhat dismissive of concerns about privacy, fearing instead the intrusion into the public sphere of content that was once considered private. He argued that Americans had far less privacy in small towns of the 19th century, but that the awareness that everyone knew everyone else’s business encouraged them to temper their public behavior.
I can remember thinking, when I first read that essay, that there was a huge difference between the public lived experience of small-town America, and the surveillance society that people feared. In a small town, everyone knows my business, but I know theirs; in a surveillance society, someone whom I know nothing about knows almost everything about me.
Franzen was writing before the advent of modern social media, and the intervening years have shown both his fears, and those of the privacy advocates he dismissed, to have been justified. Social media is now an unparalleled platform for the oversharing Franzen despised, but also a far greater surveillance tool than whatever we thought the government was doing in 1998. This New York Times article examines how the combination of personal-data-as-corporate-property and the resulting epistemic inequality empowers social media companies at the expense of public space–and democracy.
Somehow, I’d escaped knowing about Star Slate Codex until last week, after it was gone. It was the vanguard of a new libertarian ethos called Rationalism, a worldview that drives the way many Silicon Valley luminaries think, including Sam Altman, Marc Andreessen and Elon Musk. At its core is a belief that we can lean on pure logic to clarify our thinking, but the cultural context in which its embedded is continuous with the earlier neoliberal strains of hippie capitalism that created Silicon Valley in the first place. And because Rationalists are so willing to give literally anyone a platform, it is normalizing dangerously sexist and racist thinking, and pushing it into the world of tech.
Office technology, from the typewriter to auto-completing collaborative word processors, has been touted as tools for making office work easier by automating the tedious and repetitive bits. But, Anne Helen Petersen argues that what it’s actually done is to provide a mechanism for consistently increasing productivity—while leaving wages stagnant. Indeed, automation can alienate skilled workers from their job by creating a distance, a disconnection from their work and their colleagues.
> Productivity, in other words, doesn’t make the clerk’s job easier. It doesn’t give them more time to rest. It just sets new standards for the sheer amount of work they should be accomplishing in a given day.
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So much for Issue 18! As always, we welcome your feedback and suggestions, either by replying directly to this email, or pinging me or Chip on the Twitters. Thanks for subscribing and reading, and thanks to the many folks who have continued to share content with us! If you enjoyed this issue, share with your friends!
Until next time, yours, Chip Hollingsworth & Don Goodman-Wilson