Beyond Digital Ethics

Cal Newport :

It’s hard to imagine companies of this size voluntarily reducing revenue in response to a new brand of ethics. It’s unclear, given their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, if they’re even allowed to do so.

By contrast, I’ve long supported a focus on culture over corporations. 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.

Maybe I’m just in a cynical mood, but I don’t personally see either of these approaches working. Honestly, anything that requires individuals or groups of people to shift their behaviors by first changing their minds sounds like tilting at windmills to me.

I’d love to be wrong about this.

On a less cynical note, I believe behavior is currently naturally shifting away from the excesses alluded to by Newport. Anecdotally, I see fewer students distracted on their phones throughout the day than I used to. And it’s clear people have to started to pay attention to the man behind the curtain in terms of advertising and content suggestions online. Give it some time, people know how to take care of themselves, and are surprisingly resilient.