The Ethics of the Unethical Google Glass: @stopthecyborgs Makes A Great Argument for Ethics Class at Computer School

If you do a review of computer science and electrical engineering classes at leading universities, you will find many interesting classes.  One you will not find is the ethics of technology.

We are now told that “wearables” are inevitable and if you question the ethics of products like Google Glass, you get the usual epithet that’s soooo 1999:  “Luddite” or the trendier “Neoluddite”.  This line of thinking is based on a long, uninterrupted training that utterly fails to question itself that can be summed up as “the technology made me do it” or “if it can be done, it ought to be done.”

In a thoughtful Salon article,  “The Bay is burning!  Google Glass, techno-rage and the battle for San Francisco’s soul,”  Andrew Leonard addresses the ethics of technology.  If you’ve seen the “Stop the Cyborgs” stickers around and about posted by restaurants, bars and stores letting the public know that Google Glass is not welcome in their establishments, you’ll have seen manifestations of the “techno-rage” that accompanies Glass in particular (hence the pejorative “Glasshole”) and at least in San Francisco, Google in general.

Leonard’s article includes his interview with a member of Stop the Cyborgs who sums it up:

I contacted StopTheCyborgs by email and asked them how they responded to being called “neoluddites.”

“If ‘neoluddism’ means blindly being anti-technology then we refute the charge,” said Jack Winters, who described himself as a Scala and Java developer. If ‘neoluddism’ means not being blindly pro-technology then guilty as charged.”

“We are technologically sophisticated enough to realize that technology is politics and code is law,” continued Winters. “Technology isn’t some external force of nature. It is created and used by people. It has an effect on power relations. It can be good, it can be bad. We can choose what kind of society we want rather than passively accepting that ‘the future’ is whatever data-mining corporations want.”

“Basically anyone who views critics of particular technologies as ‘luddites’ fundamentally misunderstands what technology is. There is no such thing as ‘technology.’ Rather there are specific technologies, produced by specific economic and political actors, and deployed in specific economic and social contexts. You can be anti-nukes without being anti-antibiotics. You can be pro-surveillance of powerful institutions without being pro-surveillance of individual people. You can work on machine vision for medical applications while campaigning against the use of the same technology for automatically identifying and tracking people. How? Because you take a moral view of the likely consequences of a technology in a particular context.” [Emphasis added.]

And this is exactly the point:  How is it that Google made Glass without taking safeguards into account–or perhaps not making it at all.  Because someone else will so why shouldn’t Google make the money?

Pretty much.

That is also pretty much what all of Google’s problems boil down to–they could have made a choice not to get down into the muck of the Internet but they didn’t.  The kind of thinking that drove them to produce a device whose very purpose is to surveil, that appeals to the voyeur, that clearly endangers the public as much as texting and driving.  The kind of thinking that allows them to justify selling advertising for illegal products and keeping the money, promoting the sale of illegal drugs to children and being the leading inducer of piracy in the known universe.  Building YouTube so that they can’t keep the rape videos off of it or the “how to shoot heroin” lessons.

Or using $500,000,000 of the stockholders money to keep their senior executive team out of jail.

They did not ask themselves whether they ought to do something that technology enabled them to do.

Everyone has a voice in their head that is the voice of their mother, father, priest or rabbi, teacher, sergeant or chief petty officer–that’s the voice that tells you “Don’t do that because it is wrong.”  It is this voice in your head that keeps society together.  Not the police and not the prosecutors.  The law derives from this voice, not the other way around.  This voice is the shared values of thousands of years of human moral development.  That voice doesn’t give you a pass on the consequences of a machine you build whether it is a Ford Pinto, a search engine or a “wearable”.  That’s what the Luddites were largely about.  And it would be nice if universities taught the ethics of technology before they turned these people loose on the world.

In the irony of ironies, Bill Gates is on the team that recently filed a patent for an “UNAUTHORIZED VIEWER DETECTION SYSTEM AND METHOD”:


A system for detecting and responding to an intruding camera. The system includes an electronic media display device having a screen configured to display content, a sensor, and a processing circuit. The processing circuit is configured to obtain information from the sensor, analyze the information to determine a presence of a camera, and edit any displayed content in response to the presence of the camera.

In other words, Neoglass.

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