A pragmatic approach to digital ethics

Cal Newport has some thoughts on the “digital ethics” movement. In his post Beyond Digital Ethics he argues that large companies will never turn their backs on revenue just because it’s “the right thing to do”:

Instead of quixotically convincing some of the most valuable business enterprises in the history of the world to behave against their interests, we should convince individuals to adopt a much more skeptical and minimalist approach to the digital junk these companies peddle.

We don’t need to convince YouTube to artificially constrain the effectiveness of its AutoPlay algorithm, we should instead convince users of the life-draining inanity of idly browsing YouTube.

This approach will be challenging too, because we are up against some really strong brain psychology. As Don Norman notes in Why bad technology dominates our lives:

Curiosity is, on the whole, a virtue. We have evolved to be curious. Our nervous system is especially sensitive to change, and changes in the environment attract attention. But the technology-centered view labels this natural, creative trait as a liability: Curiosity is renamed as distraction. A human virtue is now turned into a liability.

Worse, many businesses have learned to exploit our curiosity. The continual bombardment of tantalizing tidbits of information deliberately designed to grab our attention away from other, potentially more valuable activities are distractions that can lead to accidents, injury, and interpersonal problems.

We are in uncharted territory and there are no easy solutions.