The Ethics of a Click

You now have the power to fire someone with a click of a button. What do you do with such power? No: what have you done with such power?

This is not a hypothetical trick question. Every query you make in a search, every click you make on a product, every rating you give to someone—all of them feed a data machine that has a measurable effect on someone's revenue. And bad ratings kill businesses.

Have you meant it?

The Consequences

The Internet has the weird power to connect and dehumanize people at the same time. It is the difference between firing someone by moving them between two Excel sheets and by telling them in person. But personal responsibility is not about the medium, but about the personal connection to consequences. If you assume your responsibility, you suffer the same way: soldiers killing with computers have the same PTSD as the ones killing in person.

Do you know that by disagreeing with someone on a social network, you are supporting them?

You probably know that—but I am willing to bet that even the avid viewers of The Social Dilemma1 have problems internalizing this connection2, let alone acting on it. Blaming them would be victimization: it's hard to resist a sustained, well-designed, and targeted manipulation3.

Because at the core of a lot of tech products is institutionalized dishonesty and lies. It is about manipulating consumers into behavior with consequences they are not aware of.

Set aside the companies firing people whose customer rating is below 4.8. This is causing issues even when the intents are good. People I talked to liked that they participated in the magazine and book digitization project known as reCAPTCHA, but they don't like that it was used as a mandatory gatekeeper to allow the use of other services. People like less when they realize they do unpaid work to help Google develop their autonomous car driving. And they often scream in horror when they realize that the most accurate face recognition algorithm in its time was developed thanks to their relentless work on fixing Facebook’s people tagging feature.

Of course, the response to the above is different from business owners. "Smart" is the word. It is also not unique for businesses to make a profit elsewhere then you expect. Airlines do not make money on flights. But I do feel this is more significant: it is about unknowingly participating in developing technologies with consequences for society. There is a very significant knowledge gap between industry insiders and outsiders.

It produces discrimination. A lot of modern e-shops are an equivalent of a cashier looking at you, your grocery cart, and offering a one-time, non-negotiable price for your cart that may change if you come five minutes later. Oh, you have a dress that smells of apples? My apologies, I've missed that: the price is now +10%. And a bad hair color? "System" thinks you are riskier: plus another 5. I mean, it’s redeemable: beam light into your face for a few hours to make you acceptable.

"System" and "algorithm" are the keywords. Impartial, higher authority forced us to do things this way. It sure sounds better than "we programmed it this way".

Internet dehumanization and the feeling of “tech is complicated” allow companies to evade torches and pitchforks, for now at least. I have a long-standing feeling that by 2030, saying you work in FAANG will have the same vibe as working on Wall Street.

The Responsibility

As I've said, it's not your fault, but it has to be your responsibility4. I believe this is similar to global warming and limiting waste production. Personal lifestyle changes do not matter much at face value. Recycling your household output is trivial compared to the coal mine next door.

Yet it is equally important because it sends a signal. And if supported by spending habits, it changes companies, industries, and politics—and that starts to change.

Companies with strong ethical ideas are rare because they are less efficient. They only survive if the lack of efficiency is outweighed by proportional consumer interest or by behavior that nullifies the current advantage.

I try to do my part and do not feed The Moloch. I try to pay attention to it. I rarely rate goods. I do rate books on GoodReads that are decoupled from the shops. When I strongly disagree with someone on an internet social network, I first try to think whether they are not just trying to amplify reach through an extreme stance. Commentary can then be done over a screenshot of their work or in a separate and disconnected text.5

Since I am in a position of sufficient economic wealth, I try to put it where my mouth is. If there is a more expensive ad-free plan, I buy it. I even pay for a simple bookmarking service just because it’s analytics-free. It is hard and not perfect: although I don't use Google for 99% of my searches for a long while, a complete de-Googlization project is still underway6.

But I am aware this is the equivalent of bragging about a trip to a recyclable trash can. It is my virtue signaling, putting out plastic bags while working in a factory that wraps goods in plastic thousands of times a day.

Yet. There are people like me in the factories. We look around to look for interest in paying for different wrappings, to excuse going that way while being honestly able to uphold fiduciary duty.

With enough people wanting it, we can make a difference. And the earlier we do, the higher the chance is that when the knowledge gap collapses, it will do so without the collapse of the society.

Special thanks to a friend who only gives a 5-star rating—or none. Thanks to Honza Javorek for correction and comments.

  1. Disclaimer: I haven't seen it yet beyond the trailer and some reactions ↩︎

  2. Disagreement is engagement. Engagement means money, hence engaging content is promoted. Promotion is an influence. Influence is the goal of both marketers and politicians. ↩︎

  3. This is what makes me support consumer regulations. I choose to team up with my fellow citizens in a country-level review of the safety of products and agreeing not to buy them together if they fail (aka banning them). The alternative excludes the poor and makes everyone more prone to producer manipulation.

    As a free bonus, it solves the coordination problem.

    Yes, it’s hard to do well. This is why there should be the minimum amount of regulations required, but not less. ↩︎

  4. I feel uneasy about this statement as it can be seen as absolving “companies” of responsibility. But “companies”—as well as “governments”—are still composed of “us”. They change when we force them to. Companies react to revenue threads, government officials to reelection threads. ↩︎

  5. I find this controversial as I believe credits should be given when due and data sourced. I try to find balance—but when someone is obviously trying to game the system, a response is due. ↩︎

  6. This site being an example: I am still to set up non-GA analytics that works for me ↩︎

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