It’s Time for Tech to Ask ‘Should We’ Instead of ‘Could We’
What happens when Google, Microsoft, and other big tech companies call on philosophers for ethics help
The future of intelligence is being shaped by five companies, reality is splintering off into political extremes, and expertise is seen as inherently suspicious. A few technology companies have weaved themselves into the essential fabric of our lives — all while automating racial profiling, rigging elections, and undermining worker solidarity.
Philosophers are being called upon more and more to go beyond the reactionary “What the f**k is going on?” and dig into the more nuanced work of “Why?” “How?” and “Should we?”
Responses to these urgent questions are enormous, global, and powerful, while also being detailed, local, and fragile. Answers to “WTF?!” will be layered stories of a few tech giants, millions of businesses and startups, and billions of individuals, each driven by their own unique and messy motivations. To grasp even a small part of this whole — which is all one can ever do — there needs to be a move from critical thinking to creative thinking.
The former tends to prioritize reason and tidiness, while the latter seeks understanding through curiosity and collaborative listening. This method is slower and the results are messier, but creativity clings to humanity in all its ugliness and confusion. Ethicists need a directed and generous focus on the humans building and using technology if they hope to shape the pathway into the future.
The field of ethics, which explores the muddy turf of “should we?” is changing quickly. Historically found within the university walls (and sometimes hospitals), philosophers are now being summoned out of their offices by large companies — the likes of Google and Microsoft — to help mitigate the negative effects of emerging technologies like A.I., automation, and robotics. Yet there are no standards or required qualifications to work as a tech ethicist. Once in the role, one may wear many hats: the academic, the advisor, the board member, the whistleblower, the advocate, the regulator. As with most issues concerning morality or justice, there are myriad personalities as well: the mediator, the collaborator, the polemicist, the evangelist, the pensive recluse. A single person might take on various shades of the above depending on the context, but all play an important part in shaping the future.
A role that is spoken of less often, likely because it is more of a relational posture than an official position, is the ethicist as deep listener.
Too often there’s a notion in humanities that those working in technology don’t care about the ethical implications of their work, that “move fast and break things” continues to be the reigning mantra for many in Silicon Valley. Sure, engineers may not be versed in the various theories of responsibility, but the growing worker uprisings in tech are busting the myth that they don’t care about how their work affects people.
Deep listening is a way to combat misconceptions and bridge the gaps that lay between the silos of academia and industry, as well as between developers and users. For ethicists, it forces us to step down from the podium and slide into a chair at equal height. Here, the engineer and the philosopher can seek common understanding, instead of imposing views on each other.
Brilliant theologian (and, yes, also my mother) Candice Bist describes this dynamic as “contemplative stance,” or contemplation in the form of an active posture that “in its attentiveness, and experience of a fuller reality… is able to imagine alternate ways of being in any given situation… to hold steady in the face of uncertainty and apparent chaos.”
Most importantly, both the contemplative stance and deep listening require the washing away of contempt. Anger or even hatred sometimes have the power to spark collaboration, but contemptuousness only serves to kill creativity. If critics only focus on that which they disdain, they pass over the textures and nuances that allow the thing they disdain to exist. Without this essential information, it’s so much harder to move towards change. The future is coming fast and we need more solutions and fewer Twitter fights.
In theory, philosophers should be wonderful listeners. If the path to knowledge or truth is made by exchanging ideas and altering one’s stance when a new idea proves more appropriate, then shutting up and seeking to understand is essential. But anyone who has attended a philosophy class or sat beside a philosopher at a dinner party may well have experienced something different. Fran Lebowitz’s quip — “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting” — comes to mind.
Starting in Philosophy 101, we’re trained to find holes in arguments. We comb through texts to find unclaimed assumptions, biases, and illogical leaps. We’re told to read our opponents “charitably,” but I’ve found such generosity to be rare. More often than not, philosophy involves men having a verbal boxing match.
Rather than wagging a finger or proselytizing, an ethicist might assume a more gentle posture, both verbally or physically, that invites the other: “tell me.” This invitation acts as a tender question and allows the answer to unfold naturally, without the danger of being immediately categorized. The narrative enters into the room in peace or with force, and either can take on a strong presence or fade away as easily as it came into being. The true listener does not seek to possess or dissect the story, but to nurture the space into which it emerges.
The practice of attentive waiting conflicts with our culture’s emphasis on action, productivity, and knowledge. A still and resting mind is considered unproductive in an economic sense, but I believe it is essential to build a path towards healing. By resisting the temptation of predetermined progress, the contemplative stance nurtures the space between two people and makes room for the creative and unpredictable to take place.
These are strange times. Each day seems imbued with a new sense of urgency. As the rainforests burn, refugees flee, and privacy becomes near impossible, we need swift, harsh, and outspoken advocacy. Our future relies upon it, some futures more desperately than others. But I want to add to this list: sometimes we need to slow down, be quiet, and listen generously and without judgment. When we do, the magic of creativity may begin.