If you have a problem, who you gonna call? Unfortunately, in the technology world, the answer is far too often the legislature. (Or it might be the Supreme Court—a de facto legislature.) The technology market has developed quickly because of innovation and (in the case of the Internet, for instance) a relative absence of government intervention. But the growing unwillingness to resolve difficulties and even disputes privately and nonviolently is taking its toll on both the industry and the culture at large. Here are several areas in which technology management, employees and consumers can and should pursue voluntary, peaceful resolutions of their differences—not state violence.
Equality, Discrimination, Marriage and Other Such Controversies
Well before the Indiana religious-freedom legislation and recent Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, I wrote that instead of politicizing marriage, executives like Jeff Bezos (and others) should instead pursue a peaceful alternative: get government out of the marriage business and allow people form contracts between each other as they see fit. The benefit? Not only would companies like Amazon avoid alienating a good portion of their customers by staying out of cultural controversies, they would be promoting the same type of interaction that made them successful: peaceful, nonviolent, consensual agreements between parties (the non-aggression principle).
Instead, a number of companies—including Twitter, Google and Microsoft, for instance—chose to associate themselves with one particular cultural view, particularly with regard to a sweeping Supreme Court decision that overrides the will of the majority in some locales (democracy-when-convenient). Regardless of one’s perspective on the matter of marriage, this kind of bandwagoneering not only offends some potential customers (news flash: there’s no such thing as unmitigated tolerance), but it’s also disingenuous. As some article comments have pointed out in response to modern indignation on this topic, companies like Apple seem awfully silent with regard to the ostensibly intolerant attitudes and laws of countries like Iran. In other words, these companies aren’t on a social crusade: they’re just willing to exploit cultural conditions to make a buck.
Likewise in the case of so-called discrimination, people in the technology world are far too quick to turn to violence by proxy (e.g., lawsuits) to force others to comply with their will. I’m not referring to theft, assault or violation of any contract; I’m talking about consensual relationships between employers and employees, businesses and consumers, and individuals. Let’s avoid the euphemism: these situations involve one party—the plaintiff—calling on the threat of violence (fines, imprisonment or even death) against another party—the defendant. Alternatives to violence are plentiful: boycotts, information campaigns and so on. Asking the state to threaten violence is unacceptable and is contrary to the kinds of voluntary associations that have helped build the technology market. The alternate principle in this case is non-aggression (nonviolence).
Security and Privacy
In a sense, we must take government into account with regard to privacy because the state is a bad actor. Yet when it comes to privacy in the relationships between businesses or between businesses and consumers, the state should not be invoked as though it’s a parent who must set rules on how we should be nice to our little brother or sister. A Network World article laments that “Washington really is truly clueless about the Internet of Things as a whole....There is an almost endless list of security and privacy concerns when it comes to IoT devices and the data collected by billions of sensors, but Washington has a ‘wait and see’ attitude.” Frankly, so what? Where are the adults in this room? Why must companies call on legislators to resolve their problems—and then, ironically, moan about the consequences of bad legislation? Laughably, the same people who firmly, and perhaps rightly, believe that congressmen are clueless about technology still expect the legislature to produce rules to govern it.
Consumers are well aware that companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and so on are collecting and sharing their information. (And if they aren’t, they’re simply not paying attention to the ads that mysteriously match something you just looked up on the web a few minutes before.) Yet they do little to change their behavior, indicating that privacy, despite the griping, is of negligible value to them.
Even security is a matter that governments are not fit to address. Just like with their cars or homes, individuals may choose to pay more or less to receive a particular level of security for their IoT devices. In some instances, for example, lower security may be worth the cheaper price (e.g., not everyone feels the need to install a potentially costly home security system). Ironically, the federal government—with its multi-trillion-dollar budget—can’t even secure the records of its employees, including those with high-level security clearances. Why trust it to secure the IoT?
Online Bullying and Abuse
Does anyone honestly think the state has eliminated bullying from its own monopolistic school system? Then why think it can do so for online interactions? Let’s be honest: comment sections and social media are cesspools of the worst human behavior. They’re also voluntary: there are ways to filter out comment sections, consumers can avoid using social media or carefully limit with whom they interact and so on. But like juveniles, we all too often call in authorities to solve our problems rather than taking responsibility for our own actions.
A recent CIO article, for instance, practically begs (perhaps implicitly) for legislative action to deal with this issue. “[Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline] says social companies could also push to pass laws that support and protect victims. ‘Working closely with legislators and law enforcement, helping to educate them on this issue, and expressing the seriousness and scope of online harassment and cyberstalking could go a long way toward helping create a more effective response on multiple levels.’” There may be a point where abuse crosses the legal line into actual threats, but almost invariably such cases can be addressed through existing legal channels. Unfortunately, it’s clear where this sort of legislative drive is really headed: censorship of anything deemed “offensive” or “harmful.”
Ride-sharing app Uber has been a worldwide target because of the threat it poses to the highly regulated taxi business. The response has been to pursue regulations, lawsuits and other means to eliminate the company’s competitive advantage—i.e., almost any measure other than improving existing services. In the technology world (although technology is no exception), attempts to stifle competition often come in the form of rent-seeking, dubious patents and intellectual-property lawsuits and so on. But innovative products and services from technology companies have upset more than one entrenched business—think typewriters, for example. Imagine if typewriter companies had lobbied for legislation that limited the use of certain input devices only to mechanical (rather than electrical) systems—you know, all in the name of safety and the public good. The PC might never have emerged.
These few examples are cases where technology companies or consumers either call for or cheer greater state interference in what are otherwise voluntary relationships. Unfortunately, these actions, although they may yield short-term benefits for some, make us all worse off for the introduction of violence or the threat of violence into otherwise peaceful (if controversial or morally dubious) interactions. Naturally, there is a time to call on the state—particularly in cases of physical assault or theft of property. But calling on the state to resolve problems that we should each address first in our own lives shows a lack of maturity and invites nothing but trouble.