I drew this image a few months ago for one of my closest friends, who works on the hill. She, like me, watched the events last week unfold with bewilderment. It was unbelievable to see the Capitol overrun, and seemingly so easily.
At the end of it all, I was proud to see our legislature resume session and continue with their work.
📊 We live on the slippery slope
Technology is a dominant force in our society. It influences our personal, professional, and political experiences more and more.
Last week, the real world and the digital one collided head-on. We used social media to organize, energize, act, observe, comment, and censor. The role technology played forced us to consider its capabilities, possibilities, and responsibilities.
Now, we’re asked to draw the hard lines on what type of internet we’ll accept.
Banned & banished
Twitter began placing labels on some of President Trump’s tweets before the election. The tweets were marked as “disputed” or possibly "misleading”. After the election, Twitter added "Election officials have certified Joe Biden as the winner of the U.S. Presidential election." This past week Twitter blocked his tweets, temporarily locked him out, and later, permanently suspended his account.
Trump was (is?) no stranger to creating buzz online (see Wikipedia's Donald Trump on social media for a full chronicle) but this time was different. Twitter found his last posts to be inciting violence and took action. Many (most?) other social media companies followed suit, banning Trump’s accounts from their platforms.
Soon after, Apple and Google removed Parler from their app stores for the role it played in the riot at the Capitol. Parler is a platform that describes itself as an unbiased social media network.
Again, other tech companies followed. This time, it was tech infrastructure companies like Amazon Web Services and Twilio that took action. Without hosting or other capabilities, Parler was essentially banished from the internet.
We like to think of the internet being free and unrestricted except in the most clear and aggressive scenarios (violence, doxxing, etc.). It follows the First Amendment.
Yet, these actions confront us with the reality that tech companies operate in their own terms of service. This realization spurred conversation about the slippery slope our society is sliding down. At the bottom of the slope is either the end of free speech or the end of a stable democracy.
I’m not an expert on the constitution. None (few?) of us in the tech space are. What I have learned is ethics and laws require more nuance than absolutes and "if, then" statements.
The categorial imperative
Immanuel Kant creates an argument that follows the same logic as the slippery slope. He aims to determine what is ethical based on simple logic:
The categorical imperative: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law
An action is unethical if, when the entire society acts, the action is logically false. For an action to be ethical, everyone must be able to act. For example, consider murder. Our society survives if one person kills. But what if everyone killed? There would be no one left to kill! And thus, murder is unethical.
This is the argument those who use "slippery slope" for justification rely on. If Twitter bans Trump, he can still create a website and reach his audience. There is no freedom of speech infringement per se. But what if every mainstream social media and tech company bans Trump? Well, we'll build a new social media site and he can communicate there. If the public wants to hear them, they can. The internet continues to function so the action is logically sound and thus ethical.
Instead, what if Twitter began to ban every account that it perceives to be against its value system? In this scenario, let’s imagine Twitter’s value system becomes more and more restrictive. Soon, anyone with an opinion gets booted! The number of users would decrease as would site engagement. It would eventually be so reduced that Twitter stops being “Twitter.” Kant would say this is unethical but it would also be a bad business decision!
The mass action against Parler follows this same logic but with wider-reaching consequences. If platforms like AWS continued blocking sites and apps, the internet would no longer be open. Eventually, it would be unrecognizable in comparison to today.
Those crying “slippery slope” argue ethics from Kant’s perspective. But, we know that the categorical imperative has flaws. For example, in the case of lying to a murderer. Lying is unethical. Can we make an exception what about lying to a murderer about the location of his prey?
And this is where Kant’s imperative breaks down, in the exceptions.
Ethics are difficult, and, like Kant, we search for logic or sweeping rules to guide our thinking. If only this was feasible in an enigmatic and imperfect world.
I took a law class during my MBA. I didn’t remember much but this maxim stood out:
The purpose of [the law] is drawing lines and defending them. We live on the slippery slope.
Technology is complex and getting even more so as it infiltrates all aspects of modern life. Freedom of speech, privacy, safety, security, identity are all important issues today. How we address these issues as a society will have downstream effects that need to be carefully considered. Logical if-then strings will not cut it.
There are five Koshas, or layers of human being. The first is Annamaya Kosha, or our physical body. The second is Pranamaya Kosha, our energy.
One of the most obvious ways to notice Pranamaya Kosha is through the breath. At times when I am stressed, I lose my breath because I talk fast and do not leave enough space for breathing!
As much as we notice Annamaya Kosha, we can use it to influence our Pranamaya Kosha. Taking a minute to take a deep breath can bring your body, and energy, back in line.
Thanks for reading, please let me know what you think. Stay safe and healthy. Ciao! 👋