The Problem with The Social Dilemma? It’s hiding in plain sight!

The Social Dilemma” opens with powerful quotes from powerful people in social media business and technology.

They laud the technology as a “force for good.” A visionary tech entrepreneur sums up excitement and idealism that inspired so many like him in the tech industry: “These tools have created wonderful things. They’ve reunited lost family members. They’ve found organ donors. I mean there were meaningful, systemic changes happening around the world because of these platforms that were positive!”

After extolling the boon to humanity that social media technology brings, they confess and grieve over the damage that the social media industry is doing to society on so many levels: “Yeah, these things, you release them and they take on a life of their own. And how they’re used is pretty different than how you expected.” One after another, these leaders express serious concern if not outright fear over the platforms they have invented, built, marketed and empowered.

The interviewer asks the obvious question, “So, what is the problem?”

This question stops each of them in their tracks. They are dumbstruck. Gobsmacked. Stunned, and speechless. No one has an answer. They stare blankly into the camera. They drop their heads in despair. They laugh nervously. Not one of them can answer. The next hour and a half of this documentary is a sharp, intelligent effort to answer that question.

And make no mistake, there is a problem, and these people have helped create it. They have been leaders, entrepreneurs, CEO’s, chief engineers, and key designers of the software and computational engines that make money by shrewd manipulation of massive amounts of personal data. They all know there is a problem, and yet they cannot name it.

From a theological point of view, the answer is simple—sin.

Why are these leaders dumbstruck by the question? Perhaps they are reluctant to bring faith into the discussion, because they don’t want to sound “religious”. Or perhaps they lack a faith perspective that understands the reality of sin.

It turns out that a practical, down-to-earth, perspective on the reality of sin is necessary to name the problem, and to navigate our way forward with wisdom in harnessing new economic and technological forces.

So it has always been, in one sense. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” according to Ecclesiastes 1:9. Technology has always been a part of human culture, and it has always been subject to misuse. Some would argue that technology is not the problem, misuse of technology is the problem. Does that mean we just need to be “nice” on social media? No, that’s a superficial response and misses the deeper issues.

While it’s true that technology per se is not a new problem, this particular technology does indeed create new problems which society has not seen before. The experts interviewed in the documentary point this out as well—the scale, speed, ubiquity and massive coverage of huge swaths of communications on every level, from intimate personal connections, to micro-targeting, to mass-media are unprecedented. This is not merely a matter of degree. It is a qualitative change. The massive reach of manipulative techniques, governed by no authority other than the economic self-interest of the platform providers, is already having a pronounced effect on culture, as seen in the divisiveness, “fake news”, and political discord evident in the current election cycle.

How did something aimed at being so good and idealistic, and developed by such well-intentioned people with good motives and good values, go so wrong? The answer is that the idealism was untampered by an awareness of sin. In particular, institutional sin.

That’s why I wrote this paper, to diagnose the problem, explain the tragedy that we have seen unfold, and point the way forward into wise use of the powerful new technologies we are developing.

Sin and the Hacker Ethic: The Tragedy of Techno-Utopian Ideology in Cyberspace Business Cultures

Abstract

This article traces the course of idealistic thinking in the “hacker ethic” of the computer industry, with the aim of diagnosing the unfortunate lapses in business ethics that can ensue from idealistic thinking. Several Silicon Valley companies are mentioned, but Facebook is the prime example, simply because they are the biggest target and clearest example of bad ethics. The original “hacker ethic” was founded on admirable ideals, but the problem occurs when these ideals are used to rationalize a self-serving ideology. Facebook’s history shows how idealistic thinking can become embedded in a business culture. As an antidote to the ethical lapses that may befall such idealistic thinking, this paper argues that the biblical notion of sin can help diagnose the problem and suggest corrective measures. The paper analyzes the corruptive patterns of sin in cyber-tech businesses and closes with practical guidance for business practitioners.

Recommended Citation

Baker, Bruce D. (2020) “Sin and the Hacker Ethic: The Tragedy of Techno-Utopian Ideology in Cyberspace Business Cultures,” Journal of Religion and Business Ethics: Vol. 4 , Article 1.
Available at: https://via.library.depaul.edu/jrbe/vol4/iss2/1

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