Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley
"1. The Internet’s architecture is highly unusual.
2. The Internet’s architecture reflects certain values.
3. Our use of the Net, based on that architecture, strongly encourages the adoption of those values.
4. Therefore, the Internet tends to transform us and our institutions in ways that reflect those values.
5. And that’s a good thing."
The quoted list above comprises the premises that undergird an essay by David Weinberger, recently published in The Atlantic, titled “The Internet That Was (And Still Could Be).” Weinberger, who is the co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto (and now a researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society), argues that the Internet’s architecture “values open access to information, the democratic and permission-free ability to read and to post, an open market of ideas and businesses, and provides a framework for bottom-up collaboration among equals.” However, he notes, in what he calls the “Age of Apps” most Internet users don’t directly encounter that architecture:
In the past I would have said that so long as this architecture endures, so will the transfer of values from that architecture to the systems that run on top of it. But while the Internet’s architecture is still in place, the values transfer may actually be stifled by the many layers that have been built on top of it.
Moreover, if people think, for example, that the Internet is Facebook, then the value transfer may be not just stifled but shifted: what they may be absorbing are Facebook’s values, not the Internet’s. However, Weinberger describes himself as still ultimately optimistic about the beneficial impact of the Internet. In light of the layers that obscure its architecture and its built-in values, he offers a new call to action: “As the Internet’s architecture shapes our behavior and values less and less directly, we’re going to have to undertake the propagation of the values embedded in that architecture as an explicit task” (emphasis added).
It’s interesting to consider this essay in conjunction with the results of a poll reported recently by the Pew Research Center. In a study of people from 32 developing and emerging countries, the Pew researchers found that
[t]he aspect of the internet that generates the greatest concern is its effect on a nation’s morals. Overall, a median of 42% say the internet has a negative influence on morality, with 29% saying it has a positive influence. The internet’s influence on morality is seen as the most negative of the five aspects tested in 28 of the 32 countries surveyed. And in no country does a majority say that the influence of the internet on morality is a positive.
It should be noted at the outset that not all of those polled described themselves as internet users—and that Pew reports that a “major subgroup that sees the internet positively is internet users themselves” (though, as a different study shows, millions of people in some developing countries mistakenly identify themselves as non-users when they really do use the Internet).
Interesting distinctions emerge among the countries surveyed, as well. In Nigeria, Pew reports, 50% of those polled answered that “[i]ncreasing use of the Internet in [their] country has had a good influence on morality.” In Ghana, only 29% did. In Vietnam, 40%. In China, 25%. In Tunisia, 17%. In Russia, 13%.
The Pew study, however, did not attempt to provide a definition of “morality” before posing that question. It would have been interesting (and would perhaps be an interesting future project) to ask users in other countries what they perceive as the values embedded in the Internet. Would they agree with Weinberger’s list? And how might they respond to an effort to clarify and propagate those values explicitly, as Weinberger suggests? For non-users of the Internet, in other countries, is the motivation purely a lack of access, or is it a rejection of certain values, as well?
If a clash of values is at issue, it involves a generational aspect, too: the Pew report notes that in many of the countries surveyed, “young people (18-34 years old) are much more likely to say that the internet has a good influence compared with older people (ages 35+).” This, the report adds, “is especially true on its influence of morality.”
Photo by Blaise Alleyne, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.