Wanted -- No, Needed: Digital Philosophers

On a fall day in 2010, a young man walked into the library at MIT. He had a lithe build, a shock of black hair, thick eyebrows, and a superbly mischievous air about him. Once in the library, as is common, he connected to the JSTOR archive of scholarly journals. As is uncommon, he proceeded to unleash a bot he had written, which over the next several months downloaded 4.8 million articles maintained by JSTOR.

That young man, of course, was Aaron Swartz: Internet pioneer, co-founder of Reddit, key contributor to the development of Creative Commons, co-creator of the W3C standard. He had every right to be at MIT. The articles were freely available through the library system. Yet the activity that was legal at a micro scale became illegal at a macro scale. Swartz was persecuted by the FBI for two years on charges of hacking. On Jan. 11, 2013, facing a penalty of up to 50 years in prison, the 26-year-old Swartz killed himself.

You rarely hear philosophy championed as a choice of major. Yet it underpins everything about our society. Our system of laws reflects perspectives on right and wrong; our choice of leaders reflects deeply held beliefs. And the bigger the scale, the more essential it is to get it right. Just as Swartz’ actions, innocuous one by one, only unleashed the FBI’s ire in the aggregate, the rules we create at one scale don’t necessarily translate to another.



Our underlying philosophies are largely unexamined, as Damon Horowitz demonstrated in this TED talk about moral operating systems, noting: "We have stronger opinions about our hand-held devices than about the moral framework we should use to guide our decisions.” As a result, we are in serious danger of having these philosophies influence our future in ways we neither intend nor desire.

And so we come back to advertising. In an excellent essay earlier this year, philosopher Thomas Wells argued that “Advertising is a natural resource extraction industry, like a fishery. Its business is the harvest and sale of human attention. We are the fish and we are not consulted.” He went on to say, “The reason advertising is artificially cheap is that no one has to ask our permission to advertise at us. We are involved in the transaction only as the commodity that is being bought and sold… Our right to preserve our own attention and to make our own decisions about how we spend it and with whom our personal information is shared must become part of the political agenda.”

You may agree with Wells. You may not. But, like downloading scholarly articles, the experience of advertising changes with its scale. One commercial at a time leaves me in control: I can change channel, look the other way, mute, close my eyes for 30 seconds. But thousands of ads, following me around on my computer, on my tablet, on my phone, in the movies, in the toilet, overwhelm me. The cumulative effect is greater than the sum of its parts.

The title of Wells’ essay was, “Is advertising morally justifiable?” Thanks to the exponential growth of digital technologies, we face, or should be facing, similar philosophical questions across a whole range of activity. Is data collection morally justifiable? Does privacy have inherent value? How do we measure security?

The critical importance of these questions will only grow with their scale, as we collect more data, invade more privacy, struggle with bigger security questions. And what is needed, desperately, is people willing to engage with the moral frameworks underpinning our thought process. As Damon Horowitz said in a different TED talk, “Our enemy is thoughtlessness. This is philosophy.”

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