The notion that technology is morally and ethically neutral has lost almost all credibility outside of Silicon Valley tech circles. Innovations such as face recognition and machine learning entice us with obvious benefits, but these are quickly followed by sinister uses that can violate and oppress.
Engineers and entrepreneurs eagerly claim credit for their positive contributions, while denying responsibility for the negative. Everyone sees this hypocrisy, but no one feels it more than the tech practitioners themselves. These are the designers, developers, and middle managers, who toil away building these mechanisms every day. Practitioners feel powerless to steer away from the rocks, and they wrestle with their sense of guilt while simultaneously suffering from the very societal ills they inadvertently contribute to.
Laissez-faire doesn’t work. The belief that the crowd will behave nicely has been clearly shown to be baseless. Online, in anonymous masses, humans often spiral to the lowest levels of behavior.
The belief that our body of laws will protect us from nefarious behavior has been revealed as outmoded. Companies simply redefine their way around carefully constructed edifices of laws designed to protect the citizenry. The pace and scope of business model innovation leaves legislators in the dust.
Thoughtful people are discovering that while the historical canon on ethics is a useful — albeit oft-forgotten — resource, it isn’t quite up to the breathtaking changes wrought by the new power of social media and artificial intelligence software. These are indeed, as data scientist Cathy O’Neil tells us, “weapons of math destruction.”
My role in the tech industry has always been as a toolmaker. While early, I’ve rarely been the very first in any new endeavor, and I make no claim as an academic or scientist. I’m a thoughtful maker, and I’m good at devising practical tools for getting difficult jobs done. In the last few years I’ve turned my mind to the problem of preventing good technology from doing bad things.
As I began talking with practitioners and speaking in public about this dilemma, one of the phrases I used to illustrate my goal was “being a good ancestor.” A good ancestor doesn’t borrow from the future. A good ancestor is good to everyone who follows, not just their own progeny. Everyone prospers or no one is really prospering. The saying struck a chord with many people. Recognizing its power as a rallying cry, I’ve adopted it as my mission statement. I want to understand what it means to be a good ancestor, how to behave as a good ancestor, and to share what I learn with others. I want all of us in the tech world to engage in ancestry thinking.
Ancestry thinking is the study and practice of being a good citizen for the long term. Instead of asking, “How can I maximize my personal benefit now?” the good ancestor asks, “How can I maximize the benefit to everyone, in perpetuity?”
There’s an old joke that states, “The way to be successful is to choose better parents!” It’s funny because it is both true and impossible. You can’t select better ancestors for yourself, but conversely, you can become a better ancestor for all those who follow. Instead of grabbing a bigger slice of the pie, you work to make the pie bigger for everyone, and to make sure that it lasts forever.
Exhorting people and organizations to “not be evil” clearly doesn’t work. Evil seems to appear regardless of our good intentions. The individuals who create some of the most oppressive digital systems are mostly good people. They are doing good work, for good reasons, and yet their creations can turn against us without anyone purposefully willing it. Everyone knows that our tech should be good, but we struggle to understand how to make that happen. We need a methodology that works. We need a set of tools.
An effective methodology helps us identify immoral, antisocial, and destructive behavior in its embryonic state. It shows us what causes bad behavior to arise despite an organization’s best intentions. It provides a language, a framework, and a toolset for steering businesses, governments, and individuals away from bad behavior and turn them towards good. The goal of ancestry thinking is to continue to define such a methodology, to teach others, and to become good ancestors ourselves.
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