The Ethics of Silicon Valley
The power of tech invites grandiose feelings. Big money, big transformational power and ergo “we want to use this to make the world a better place”. Sounds great, but this is a problematic proposition that needs to be carefully unpacked.
Problem #1- Self-Righteousness
Who the hell is anybody to believe they know better than others what a better place looks like? We don’t agree on what a better place looks like. For some people, it means more taxes, for others. For some people, it means more equality, for others less.
Problem #2 – Ulterior Motives
Suppose I have access to this amazing tech that can potentially save the lives of hundreds of people and that I am also going to make billions off of it. Am I savings lives or enriching my bank account? Perhaps both. Regardless of the ulterior motive, it is so personally impacting that it creates an unovercomable conflict of interest. Someone that will personally benefit from the tech is in no longer in any position to make any claims as to its social or human benefit.
Problem # 3 – Scope
You can ultimately tie everything into “making the world a better place”. As an example, I can say that tech that we have that allows translators to complete more work faster makes the world a better place by allowing content to be more readily accessible by a wider international audience. I could argue that this is a democratizing force. But is it really? I think it makes the world better for me and our translators because we can make be more productive and ultimately make more money out of it but the claim that this makes the world a better place is weak at best.
Ultimately “making the world a better place” rather than a true ethical proposition becomes an alibi that people use to get away with more funding, less red tape in legal clearances and overall greater buy-in. So what do we do? Well, for starters, here is what we don’t do. We don’t give up on the idea of making the world better. It’s a great idea.
Solution #1 – Transparency
Be clear about your intentions and conflicts of interest. You don’t have to be Jesus, the Buddha or Mohammed to be worthy. You can be a regular human being who wants to make money and is ultimately self-interested but still collaborates with the vision of a better place. The more upfront we are about these interests, the more real we can be about addressing them constructively.
Solution # 2- Humility
No one I have ever met that describes themselves as humble was in fact humble. Humility is a really misunderstood and misconstrued concept. To me, it’s about recognizing our own powerlessness but not giving up the fight. It’s about coming to terms with our mortality and at the same time trying to live as best we can. It’s about understanding that we are no better than anyone else, regardless of power, prestige, looks or any other distinguishing factor. And if you are humble, you are not likely to want to change the world. You are likely to ascribe to smaller and more personal goals.
Solution # 3 – Specificity
You may not be making the world a better place. But you still may improve a specific point of our dramatic human existence. That point needs to be highlighted and praised. It is still worthy and if we are all clearer on how and what we are improving it is much easier for us to understand the ethical tapestry that we are weaving together.
Tech has incredible transformational power. Nothing else can be implemented with the speed and scale that tech can. Consequently, it is a phenomenal conduit for both good and bad.
More importantly, tech requires us to systematize thought. When we systematize something, the problems in that thought process become glaring. Here is an example. If you have thousands of taxi companies that hire hundreds of thousands of cab drivers, each company will have different benefits and practices. Some may hire as contractors; some may hire as FTEs. Some may offer health care, some may not. You get the picture. The challenge is that when we roll in with tech, we typically condense what used to be the behavior of hundreds of companies into a few platforms and when you bake in these practices and notice the impact they have on a larger scale, it’s far easier to identify and flag things that could be detrimental or even harmful to others.
So tech becomes this amazing mirror that allows us to look at the same things that already existed in a chaotic and dispersed manner in a more condensed and structured way. Most of the times, we won’t like what we see, but recognizing what we are, is the only way we can actually have some kind of authorship over what we want to be. And that is the birth of ethics right there.
Gabriel Fairman is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Bureau Works, a Silicon Valley technology company that uses artificial intelligence for translation services for large corporations.