The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'ethics'
In January 2012, Facebook conducted a psychology experiment on 689,003 unknowing users, modifying the stories they saw in their news feeds to see whether this affected their emotional state. The experiment was automatically performed over one week by randomly selecting users and randomly assigning them to two groups; one had items with positive words like “love” and “nice” filtered out of their news feeds, whereas the other had items with negative words similarly removed; the software then tracked the affect of their status updates to see whether this affected them. The result was that it did: a proportion of those who saw only positive and neutral posts tended to be more cheerful than those who saw only negative and neutral ones. (The experiment, it must be said, was entirely automated, with human researchers never seeing the users' identities or posts.)
Of course, this sort of experiment sounds colossally unethical, not to mention irresponsible. The potential adverse consequences are too easy to imagine, and too hard to comfortably dismiss. If some 345,000 people's feeds were modulated to feed them a week of negativity in the form of what they thought were their friends' updates, what proportion of those were adversely affected beyond feeling bummed out for a week? Out of 345,000, what would be the expected amount of relationship breakups, serious arguments, alcoholic relapses, or even incidents of self-harm that may have been set off by the online social world looking somewhat bleaker and more joyless? And while it may seem that the other cohort, who got a week's worth of sunshine and rainbows, were done a favour, this is not the case; riding the heady rush of good vibes, some of them may have made bad decisions; taking gambles on bad odds because they felt lucky, or dismissing warning signs of problems. And then there's the fact that messages from their friends and family members were deliberately not shown to them if they went against the goals of the experiment. What if someone in the negative cohort was cut off from communications with a loved one far away, for just long enough to introduce a grain of suspicion into their relationship, or someone in the positive cohort didn't learn about a close friend's problems and was unable to offer support?
In academe, this sort of thing would not pass an ethics committee, where informed consent is required. However, Facebook is not an academic operation, but a private entity operating in the mythical wild frontier of the Free Market, where anything both parties consent to (“consent” here being defined in the loosest sense) goes. And when you signed up for a Facebook account, you consented to them doing pretty much whatever they like with your personal information and the relationships mediated through their service. If you don't like it, that's fine; it's a free market, and you're welcome to delete your account go to Google Plus. Or if Google's ad-targeting and data mining don't appeal, to build your own service and persuade everyone you wish to keep in touch with to use it. (Except that you can't; these aren't the wild 1990s, when a student could build LiveJournal in his dorm room; nowadays, the legal liabilities and regulatory compliance requirements would keep anyone other than multinational corporations with deep pockets out of the game.) Or go back to emailing a handful of friends, in the hope that they'll reply to your emails in the spare time left over after keeping up with Facebook. Or only socialising with people who live within walking distance of the same pub as you. Or, for that matter, go full Kaczynski and live in a shack in the woods. And when you've had enough of trapping squirrels for your food and mumbling to yourself as you stare at the corner each night, you can slink back to the bright lights, tail between your legs, reconnect with Mr. Zuckerberg's Magical Social Casino, where all your friends are, and once again find yourself privy to sweet, sweet commercially-mediated social interaction. In the end, we all come back. We know that, in this age, the alternative is self-imposed exile and social death, and so does Facebook, so they can do what they like to us.
As novel as this may seem, this is another instance of the neoliberal settlement, tearing up prior settlements and regulations in favour of a flat, market-based system, rationalised by a wilful refusal to even consider the disparities of power dynamics (“there is no such thing as an unfair deal in a free market, because you can always walk away and take a better offer from one of the ∞ other competitors”, goes the argument taken to its platygæan conclusion). Just as in deregulated economies, classes of participants (students, patients, passengers) all become customers, with their roles and rights replaced by what the Invisible Hand Of The Free Market deals out (i.e., what the providers can get away with them acquiescing to when squeezed hard enough), here those using a means of communication become involuntary guinea pigs in a disruptive, and (for half of them) literally unpleasant experiment. All that Facebook has to provide, in theory, is something marginally better than social isolation, and everything is, by definition, as fair as can be.
Facebook have offered an explanation, saying that the experiment was intended to “make the content people see as relevant and engaging as possible”. Which, given the legendarily opaque Facebook feed algorithm, and how it determines which of your friends' posts get a look into the precious spaces between the ads and sponsored posts, is small comfort. Tell you what, Facebook: why don't you stop trying to make my feed more “relevant” and “engaging” and just give me what my friends, acquaintances and groups post, unfiltered and in chronological order, and let me filter it as I see fit?
Irony of the day: apparently books on ethics are stolen more often from libraries than philosophical books not on ethics; after adjusting for other factors (the age of books, and their popularity), books on ethics are almost one and a half times as likely to be stolen.
(via David Gerard)
The head of an animal shelter in the US has stepped down after it emerged that a shelter employee took home a rescued pet pig named Fluffy, which he then proceeded to slaughter and eat.
Scientists in the Netherlands have come one step closer to creating vat-grown meat. The team at Eindhoven University have grown muscle tissue from cells extracted from a pig. They still need to find a way of exercising the tissue to turn it into something resembling meat; at present, it is described as "a soggy form of pork", though they say that this development could lead to sausages in as little as five years.
It is hoped that, when it arrives, vat-grown meat will be vastly more environmentally efficient, requiring fewer resources to grow, not to mention being free of animal suffering. The current process is not vegetarian, though, using animal blood products in the growth medium.
On a tangent: earlier this year, scientists mapped the cow genome, and discovered that the genes involved in making cattle docile are in regions which, in humans, are involved in mental retardation.
Nestlé, the food corporation whose name has been synonymous with unethical marketing of infant formula in the developing world, has been caught engaging in yet more dubious marketing practices abroad, this time when an ad for Maggi noodles, intended for Bangladesh, was mistakenly aired on a UK-based satellite channel, bringing it under the jurisdiction of the Advertising Standards Authority:
Shown on Nepali TV, the advert suggested that Maggi Noodles helped build strong bones and muscles. A boy playing tug-of-war with his friends ran in to see his mother, who explained to him: "Maggi is the best because it has essential protein and calcium that help to build strong muscles and bones." On-screen graphics depicted a yellow glow over a bicep and a knee, implying that those areas of the body were helped by the product.
In a statement, Nestle said: "We rigorously ensure that all health claims made on Nestle products comply with local legislation. The advert had been approved for broadcast and complied with the necessary legal requirements in Bangladesh, the market the advertisement was intended for. "It was never intended for transmission in the UK."
His work fetching huge sums, street artist Banksy has refused to authenticate five artworks up for auction this weekend, on the grounds that he does not approve of his art being removed from its original setting. The auctioneers are putting on a brave face, though:
A spokesman for the auctioneers said: "Banksy hasn't said they are fake. I don't know why he's not authenticated them... He's saying that street art should stay on the streets."
On its website, Pest Control said that since its creation in January, 89 street pieces and 137 screen prints attributed to Banksy had turned out to be fake.
"Pest Control does not authenticate street pieces because Banksy prefers street work to remain in situ and building owners tend to become irate when their doors go missing because of a stencil," Pest Control said.(Pest Control is the official organisation with authority to authenticate Banksy artwork, which was established in response to a spate of fake Banksys. Not to be confused with Vermin, an unauthorised organisation which vouched for the authenticity of the artworks being sold.)
The Napsterization blog (which is not about craptacular DRM-shackled music-rental services but about the social and economic implications of disruptive technologies) has a piece on the lengths Facebook application authors go to get people to install their applications, such as doing sleazy things like not only requiring users to install their application to see messages from friends, but wilfully misleading them into believing that if they don't forward a message (of a pornographic tone) to some friends, they won't get to see it. As a result, the maker of the app gets a juicy boost to their installation figures, whilst pissing all over people's social relationships and making your user experience that much crappier.
In this case, the culprit was Slide, with their popular FunWall application, though neither Slide nor Facebook will accept the blame for this:
Facebook pointed the finger at Slide (the app maker in this case), and said, "There is nothing we can do. We have no control over the apps people make or the stuff they send." Oh, and if I wanted Facebook to change the rules for apps makers? I'd have to get say, 80k of my closest Facebook friends to sign on a petition or group, and then they might look at the way they have allowed porn spam to trick people into forwarding, but until then, there would be no feature review.
Slide said that they thought Facebook was the problem, because as the "governing" body, Facebook makes the rules and "Slide wouldn't be competitive if they changed what they do, and their competitors weren't forced to as well." In other words, Slides competitors use the same features to get more users (or trick more users as the case may be) and Slide didn't want to lose out on getting more users with similar features, regardless of the effect the features have on us and our relationships.And things aren't likely to change by much. Human psychology being what it is, people are willing to put up with a lot of annoyance in software as long as it provides a social function. (How else could you explain MySpace, with its spammy, craptacular user experience, going from strength to strength and maintaining its position as the dominant social software site?) Some people may generally amused by every piece of spam that comes in, or believe that, like billboard advertising, it brightens up people's otherwise dull lives. Others may put up with it due to the peer pressure to not seem cranky and antisocial; after all, the argument would go, that's what they do here, and if you don't like it, why did you join? (The corollary to this argument is, of course, the attrition rate as people who get sick of having three wall applications and being awash in a sea of silly surveys and chain letters stop logging in one day.)
"The reps are very aggressive - there are three or four companies, and they come in every two weeks or so," he says. "Their main aim is to recommend their product. Sometimes they bring gifts - Nestlé brought me a big cake at new year. Some companies give things like pens and notebooks, with their brand name on them. They try very hard - even though they know I am not interested, that I always recommend breastfeeding, still they come."
According to Save the Children's report, infant mortality in Bangladesh alone could be cut by almost a third - saving the lives of 314 children every day - if breastfeeding rates were improved. Globally, the organisation believes, 3,800 lives could be saved each day. Given that world leaders are committed to cutting infant mortality by two thirds by 2015 as one of the Millennium Development Goals, protecting and promoting breastfeeding is almost certainly the biggest single thing that could be done to better child survival rates. But the formula companies, despite the international code, continue to undermine campaigners' efforts.
What do you do if you're a multinational corporation ranked among the 10 most "unethical" firms in global public opinion, and wish to rehabilitate your image? Well, if you're Nestlé (of baby-milk infamy), you buy up ethically sound brands like the Body Shop and the Linda McCartney food range.
1. You've Been Psychologically Conditioned To Want a Diamond
3. Diamonds Have No Resale or Investment Value
4. Diamond Miners are Disproportionately Exposed to HIV/AIDS
7. Slave Laborers Cut and Polish Diamonds
9. Diamond Wars are Fought Using Child Warriors
You know those American Apparel "sweat-shop free" T-shirts with the reality-porn-style ads in VICE Magazine and such? Well, apparently the company is not quite as ethically sound as it claims to be:
According to a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board and settled by the company, American Apparel engaged in tactics of intimidation to bust an attempt at unionization, including interrogating workers about their support for a union, soliciting workers to withdraw their union authorization cards and threatening to close the facility if a union was formed. The company also allegedly printed armbands to be worn at work which read, "no union," and forced employees to attend an anti-union rally.
As a result of their settlement with the National Labor Relations Board, American Apparel signed an agreement promising not to engage in union-busting tactics in the future.
Two academics from Victoria's Deakin University have published a paper calling for torture to be legalised to help fight terrorism. Not that there's much new in this (celebrated US lawyer Alan Dershowitz argued a similar point in his call for "torture warrants" some years ago), except perhaps for the extreme utilitarian stance they take, advocating even the torturing to death of innocents if the ends justify it:
Asked if he believed interrogators should be able to legally torture an innocent person to death if they had evidence the person knew about a major public threat, such as the September 11 attacks, Professor Bagaric replied: "Yes, you could."
Applying utilitarian cost-benefit calculations to matters of human lives is tricky; taking the strict numerical approach, it should be OK to kill an innocent person to harvest their kidneys if it would save the lives of two terminally ill patients; after all, the net gain is one life. Of course, Bagaric and Clarke are not asserting such an absolute a-life-for-a-life arithmetic, though by allowing the killing of the innocent to save others, they are crossing a line towards it. And that is not even looking at the question of whether torture works (the value of testimony obtained under torture has been somewhat dubious).
Anyway, I suspect that Bagaric and Clarke's law lectures are probably going to become a lot less quiet.
Objectivists, psychopaths and believers in the virtues of cruelty and pollution rejoice: there's now an anti-ethical investment fund tailored to your values. The Free Enterprise Action Fund specifically invests in companies who refuse to be intimidated by pressure from "leftists":
"What we're trying to create is a grassroots, investor-based movement to pressure corporations to resist the activists," Milloy said, adding that the Free Enterprise Action Fund is "the first and only" of its kind and "definitely the first to be doing this as shareholders."
Milloy also said the Free Enterprise Action Fund will encourage corporations not to be intimidated by the left and to hire people with the same philosophy. "If you're going to hire these people that can't stand the heat, they shouldn't be in the kitchen. What I can stop is corporate management trying to appease these [activist groups], thinking that it will make the problem go away," he added.
The Free Enterprise Action Fund refuses to disclose which companies they have invested in, but says that some of them are tobacco companies. I imagine that weapons manufacturers would be another profitable sector in today's global environment.
Meanwhile, activist pressure seems to have worked on Nike; the company, once synonymous with labour exploitation, has now become the first major company to disclose its full list of suppliers and contract factories, theoretically allowing them to be held to account more effectively over employment practices. While it's still too early to praise Nike as a model citizen (one would have to see results for that), now one no longer has to feel bad about buying a pair of Converse All-Stars. Unless, of course, one is an Objectivist or similar.
Interactive art vs. animal rights A Danish art gallery director is facing trial for animal cruelty after hosting an exhibit featuring goldfish swimming in a blender. The artist who created the exhibit, Marco Evaristtis, said that he wanted to make people "do battle with their conscience" when confronted with the switch. Throughout the course of the exhibition, two members of the public decided to press the switch (out of curiosity, disbelief that the blender could be live, or sheer sociopathic callousness; who knows?), killing the live goldfish. The gallery director is being sued for failing to cut off the electricity supply to the blender, which he says he didn't do as not to interfere with the artist's vision.
Multinational food giant Nestlé, known for having all the ethics of a tobacco company, come up with yet another way to be scumbags in Africa, this time demanding $6m from famine-struck Ethiopia for nationalising a livestock firm in 1975. The sum is in the old exchange rate; the $1.5m the Ethiopian government offered was rejected as not enough.