Is Machiavelli alive and well in Silicon Valley?



Floundering might be the word which springs to mind as we look at the spectacle of poor Mark Zuckerberg trying to cope with – or, depending on your point of view, making excuses for – the failure of Facebook to protect us from predators of one kind or another.

For Mr. Zuckerberg the search for a solution seemed to be in the same territory from which the creature which has made him one of the wealthiest men in the world has come – technology. Totally absent from his horizon was the one feature in the landscape where the solution ultimately must lie. We suspect that it may be AWOL for the same reason that it was also absent from all the imagination and energy which went into Dr. Frankenstein’s creation more than two centuries ago. There are indeed those who see Dr. Zuckerberg’s – I’m hazarding a guess that at this stage he has picked up a few honorary doctorates along the way – creation as something of a mirror image of Mary Shelly’s.

Sadly, unlike Mary Shelly’s monster, which was embodied only in fiction, a wise and salutary tale about the folly of a man who gave life to a powerful man-like instrument he could not control, Mark Zuckerberg’s creation is a real nuts and bolts, now apparently out-of-control, creation.

There seems to exist a multiplicity of black holes in the universe of modern technology. As the Netflix series, Black Mirror, worryingly illustrates for us, our lives can be sucked into these in any number of ways with the most dire personal and social consequences imaginable.

The unifying element which should offer us protection from most of these black holes is embodied in the single phrase, moral sense. The absence of this sense in the integral structure of all the myriad of pursuits of modern man is the source of many of the woes which accompany them in the form of unintended consequences. “Unintended” may modify culpability for those consequences but if our poverty of intention stems for our neglect of serious and responsible reflection, then culpability is present as darkness is present with night.

But let us not be personal about this. Mark Zuckerberg is a child of his time and if we can learn anything from his predicament it will be by looking beyond his and his company’s problem to the bigger picture.

Zuckerberg has now apologised to Facebook’s users for the “breach of trust”. What “trust” really means in the world of big tech is anyone’s guess. This breach allowed University of Cambridge researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, to harvest the details of about 270,000 people who took part in something as seemingly innocuous as an online quiz. A former Facebook manager has warned now that hundreds of millions of users are likely to have had their private information used by firms in ways that they know nothing about.

But all the talk about this is now about control, technical control, regulation and more regulation. Does anyone really understand any more why we regulate? If the moral sense which the modern world  now lacks were a real force in our society our need for regulation, controls and all the rest would be much less. If all we have are external regulations and controls we are lost souls.

A “reckoning is coming” for Facebook and its fellow tech giants, said The Sunday Times – and “not before time”. The issue in this scandal is not whether harvested Facebook data enabled Trump to steal the US election. “It did not – however much liberals would love to overturn the result.” Rather, it’s that Facebook has failed to protect the personal data of its users. The company has been “unforgivably lax” about third-party use of this information, agreed  The Times. It has arrogantly shirked “the responsibilities that come with power”, and been wilfully blind to the consequences of its inaction until problems have reached the headlines.

The black hole into which the private information of “hundreds of millions of users” has plummeted may be the least of the threats to the common good emanating from Facebook’s army of busy bees. Joseph Ratzinger, one of the greatest moral voices of our time, back in 2005, just a year after Facebook moved from being a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye to its launch in 2004, gave a prescient address at Subiaco in Italy.

In that address Ratzinger – who would become Pope Benedict XVI a few weeks alter – spoke of  the  “disquieting… possibilities of self-manipulation that man has acquired. He has plumbed the depths of being, has deciphered the components of the human being, and is now capable, so to speak, of constructing man himself, who thus no longer comes into the world as a gift of the Creator, but as a product of our action, a product that, therefore, can also be selected according to the exigencies established by ourselves.”

As we know, there are plenty of people who are concerned about the manipulative characteristics deliberately built in to modern technology – from the colour coding of iPhone screens to the subtle designs of homepages across the internet. Others are concerned about the contribution which Facebook, for example, contributes to the cancer of gender confusion sweeping across our culture with its amoral subscribing to a bewildering plethora of genders.

If our world, our cultures and our civilization suffers from a moral malaise it did not begin – nor will it end –  with technology and the power it places in the hands of men. In one understanding its roots are of course immemorial and the struggle it demands of us is endemic in our nature. But in recorded history we can also see a turning point at which western civilization fell deeper into the mire of confusion of which Facebook’s amorality is just another modern manifestation.

The turning point which occurred at the dawn of the modern age – and the falsehood at its heart – led Machiavelli to offer his advice to those who exercise power in this world. The spirit of this advice is also responsible for the destructive elements at work in forces of modern technology. This is not to deny any of the good elements. I use Facebook and will continue to do so.

Dr. Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation, his masterful study of how our civilization has reached the point at which it now stands, explains that Machiavelli’s ideas about human nature influenced the rejections of the Christian (and Aristotelian, and Platonic) claim about the inseparability of morality and politics. In the Florentine’s view, efforts expended in trying to live virtuously could only seem quixotically futile, aspirations to create a correlative moral community unrealistic. In his views about human nature, Machiavelli would find successors in Hobbes, Hume, and many other thinkers.

If in the following quote from Gregory’s book, we substitute in our mind the wielders of technological power for the wielders of political power we will see how Machiavelli is alive and well in Silicon Valley.

In theory, at least, Machiavelli’s practical distinction between the demands of political life and moral norms severed the exercise of power from teleological virtue ethics in public affairs, the “realism” of the former contrasted with the “idealism” of the latter. Successful and therefore good politics was unavoidably immoral, and immoral politics was the norm.“ No longer aspiring to encompass traditional morality, politics becomes instead “the art of the possible”—and as people grow accustomed to new human realities, their views change concerning what is and is not possible. What his contemporaries and Reformation-era successors who offered advice to princes continued to regard as the telos of human nature within an inherited Christian worldview, Machiavelli consequentially disdained as the “imaginary world.” Human beings are what they are; the world is as it is; the effective exercise of power requires the abrogation of morality; successful rulers override the virtues with virtu. One could exercise power or be moral, but not both.

But while “successful rulers override the virtues with virtu“, Silicone Valley overrides all morality with science and technology.

Ratzinger, who like Tiresias, perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—explained in his Subiaco address, how in the modern world the principle is now valid, according to which, man’s capacity is measured by his action. What one knows how to do, may also be done. There no longer exists a knowing how to do separated from a being able to do, because it would be against freedom, which is the absolute supreme value. But man knows how to do many things, and knows increasingly how to do more things; and if this knowing how to do does not find its measure in a moral norm, it becomes, as we can already see, a power of destruction.

Man knows how to clone men, and so he does it. Man knows how to use men as a store of organs for other men, and so he does it; he does it because this seems to be an exigency of his freedom. Man knows how to construct atomic bombs and so he makes them, being, in line of principle, also disposed to use them. In the end, terrorism is also based on this modality of man’s self-authorization, and not on the teachings of the Koran.

Until we escape from the delusion that we are masters of this universe, that we are orphans in this world and that we are answerable to no one but ourselves, then our fate will be to succumb to our inept regulations and continue to weave our way around them and wriggle our way out of them. This is the miserable human condition to which we condemn ourselves to by our arrogance.



Morality, media ethics and the algorithm


At a media conference in Dublin last weekend (@cleraunmedia) there was a great deal of talk about digital and data journalism, how to use it, – with the odd nod to how to abuse it – and how it was in some ways helping refine the whole process of keeping the world better informed.

This week the Columbia Journalism Review gives us another look at the process and raises complex ethical questions about where we are being led by this development. In all this, moral issues may arise as to what might happen if we surrender ourselves too blithely to the law of algorithms. Indeed the shadow of HAL 9000 might be already hovering over us and taking control of our far from simple world.

In those two great cinematic epics from the late sixties ad early seventies, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, the whole question of man and his machines, man as a moral being versus man as a scientific and technological being were raised. These two masterpieces, by Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky respectively, may only now be beginning to become critically relevant to our brave new world. You may remember that HAL derived its acronym from “Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer”.

The CJR raised these questions in the context of a BuzzFeed News probe earlier this year into suspicions about players fixing tennis matches. They called it “The Tennis Racket.” The piece featured an innovative use of statistical analysis to identify professional players who may have thrown matches. By analyzing win-loss records and betting odds at both the beginning and ending of a match, BuzzFeed identified cases where there was an unusually large swing (e.g. greater than 10 percent difference). If there were enough of these matches, it cast suspicion on the player.

They anonymized the data and didn’t publish the names of suspicious players. But a group of undergraduate students from Stanford University were able to infer and make public the names of players BuzzFeed had kept hidden.

The Review author, Nicholas Diakopoulos, feels the incident raises interesting questions about where to draw the line in enabling reproducibility of journalistic investigation, especially those that generate statistical indictments of individuals. “As newsrooms adapt to statistical and algorithmic techniques, new questions of media accountability and ethics are emerging.”

He notes how the news industry is rapidly adopting algorithmic approaches to production: automatically monitoring, alerting, curating, disseminating, predicting, and even writing news. This year alone The Washington Post began experimenting with automation and artificial intelligence in producing its Olympics and elections coverage, The New York Times published an anxiety-provoking real-time prediction of the 2016 presidential election results, the Associated Press is designing machine learning that can translate print-stories for broadcast, researchers in Sweden demonstrated that statistical techniques can be harnessed to draw journalists’ attention to potentially newsworthy patterns in data, and Reuters is developing techniques to automatically identify event witnesses from social media.

“While such technologies enable an ostensibly objective and factual approach to editorial decision-making, they also harbor biases that shape how they include, exclude, highlight, or make salient information to users.”

In “The Tennis Racket,” BuzzFeed decided to provide varying levels of transparency that would appeal to different levels of reader expertise. Each level of disclosure added additional nuance, so different stakeholders could access the “granularity” of information most relevant to their interests.

He then explains: “But the flip side of transparency is that, in the case of BuzzFeed, providing the source code and a detailed-enough methodology allowed students to de-anonymize the results relatively quickly and easily. The students re-scraped the data from the online source (though there was some uncertainty in identifying the exact sample used in the original story) with identities preserved, and then cross-referenced with the anonymized BuzzFeed data based on the other data fields available. This allowed them to associate a name with each of the 15 players identified in the original analysis.”

Transparency is now very high on the scale of values of the democratic world – not always adhered to without a degree of hypocrisy. The algorithm industry is well harnessed to provide tools for that. But, as this case shows, its instruments can be blunt and have a potential to perpetrate what might be injustice.

Diakopoulos points out that several prominent ethics codes employed by media organisations now emphasize transparency as a guiding norm. But transparency, he warns, is not a silver bullet for media ethics. It’s complicated.  “With so much machinery now being used in the journalistic sausage making, transparency is a pragmatic approach that facilitates the evaluation of the interpretations (algorithmic or otherwise) that underlie newswork.”

For many in the industry building computational products, Diakopoulos says, there are still concerns over algorithmic media production. We need a more accountable media system in which what he calls “these black boxes” are rendered more explainable and trustworthy.

Nicholas Diakopoulos is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland and a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

Pity the Poor Stock Dealer?

Archbishop – now Cardinal – Sean Brady gave us all something to think about over the summer months. In relation to his address at Knock when he juxtaposed the island of saints and scholars which we once were with the land of stocks and shares, which we have now become, a friend of mine was a little bemused. He is in fact someone who deals in stocks and shares and wondered if the archbishop was suggesting that there might be something wrong with that – or that this activity might be spiritually less healthy than being a scholar, or that it was incompatible with being a saint.  After working through the implications of what the Archbishop was saying we came to the more comfortable conclusion that the juxtaposition was more rhetorical than real and that the teaching of the Church was quite clear – the call to sanctity is addressed to all men and women following any honest occupation, be it scholarly or otherwise. I suppose the drip drip effect of the daily news on shady dealing, rising and falling share prices for reasons which baffle most of us, political representatives hopping in and out of the pockets of wheelers and dealers, does nothing to suggest that dealing rooms would be a place to look for a modern Irish Colmcille or Columbanus. We concluded that Archbishop Brady was throwing down a challenge to modern Ireland to prove otherwise.