I was talking to a lawyer friend about the Netflix show, The Social Dilemma. To most people not in tech, the negative impact of technology on our lives is shocking. As someone who’s worked in tech all her life, I am not surprised at all.
In law, they take classes on ethics. In medicine, they are taught to first do no harm. But when does one learn ethics in technology or in business? It is no wonder we create technology that inadvertently makes people’s lives worse off.
I used to be a direct response copywriter. Direct response is all about results. You write a sales email and send it to 100 people. How many open it? What % buys something? These numbers are how the game is won.
At best, it’s writing to persuade and influence. At worst, it’s writing to manipulate. One learns that the only purpose of a headline is to get the reader to read the first line. The first line’s is to get her to the second line. And so on all the way to the buy now button.
I got pretty good at it. To accomplish this, the most important skill is to understand your readers’ feelings. What pushes their emotional buttons? Write that.
Sometimes, it made me question how ethical this is, using words to knowingly manipulate someone’s emotions. I mean, I resent Pixar for nailing exactly how to make me cry into a formula and churn out movie after movie that does this reliably. But in the end, I decided that my job is results. What a customer reads and buys is his responsibility.
I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg never intended to create a machine that exacerbates our biases and proliferates fake news. He was only thinking about Facebook’s results. And what is fakes news vs not is up to the individual to decide.
I’ve always strived to do good while getting results. However, I never saw ethics as a primary concern for business or technology. I saw it as something that is up to every individual’s conscience to decide. This thinking is how we ended up here.
I’ve changed my mind. Like doctors, as businesses and business people, we should strive to first do no harm. This is priority number one. It might be inconvenient for our growth, but not doing so can lead to very real and disastrous consequences for many individual human beings’ lives. This is the exact opposite of the reason I got into tech.
Thanks to Ergest for helping edit this.