The blockchain project is designed to be as neutral as any other technical effort. The technology at hand changes the scope of the actions we can take and influences our perception of these choices. No matter what I think, unless I have a gun, I have no choice to shoot. I can't trick someone into committing suicide on social media unless the system allows it. Without a VPN, I could not bypass the review and social control of an authoritarian regime. The important thing is that unless I know that these actions are what I can choose, I might not think of them. The range of my choices, and how I think about their mental structure, are influenced by the technology I use.
When a thing is designed to be capable, or at least to allow certain behaviors, which principle or value the designer has chosen is more important. When a car is designed and built to be safe, but not as safe as reasonably possible, the life of the potential passenger is given a lower value than commercial or aesthetic considerations. Whether the designer admits it or not, this is true. (If you think I am joking, go see the exploded Ford Pinto).
Therefore, design decisions are value decisions, and those making those decisions are responsible for the results of their creations, especially if they are reasonably foreseeable.
What is ethical design like? Fortunately, just as I started thinking about this issue, I published an ethical technical design guide for philosophers working at the Ethics Center, which is closely integrated with the teaching methods of engineering and business ethics.
Matt Beard and Simon Lonstaff presented a set of principles in the book Design Ethics to help ethical design:
- Non-instrumentalism: Never design a technology that makes people part of the machine.
- Self-determination: Maximize the freedom of those affected by your design.
- Responsibilities: Foresee and design all possible uses.
- Net income: Maximize good and minimize bad.
- Fairness: Treat cases on an equal basis; they are different in different situations.
- Accessibility: Designed to include the most vulnerable users.
- Purpose: Design with honesty, clarity and appropriate purpose.
The obvious question is: Why do people who design blockchain projects care about this? There are three reasons: one moral and two pragmatic.
First of all, if you talk about morality, it means that you should do the right thing. This should inspire you to learn better ways to think about making these decisions. According to my experience in talking to college students in stem and business, this is not super convincing, the main effect is to cause a lot of sighs. So I don't expect this to get too much traction.
Second, the failure of ethics, both in design and in execution, seldom ends with abstract rules being broken. Business failures and engineering disasters don't always come out of thin air. Yes, sometimes unforeseen things happen. But when you look back at the history of these cases, there are usually people—usually multiple people—that know something is wrong, but not doing the right thing. Many of the failures I have used in class include the Exxon Valdez tanker stranding, the Challenger disaster, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the PFAS pollution incident at the Royal Air Force Base in Williamstown. Despite the important differences, I believe that the confusion of data abuse and potential damage continues. Despite the important differences, I believe that the seemingly inextricable data abuse that Facebook seems to be unable to get rid of and the potential damage to users is enough to draw attention.
This is not to say that the absence of morality always leads to major disasters. But behind many of the major technical mistakes of the past 50 years, some people see time as more important than security, seeing profits as more important than people, and making expediency more important than hard work. I can't say how much, but I really believe that unethical business, engineering or design decisions don't increase the risk of something going wrong. Even if this “only” is a rebound in social media, the loss of community support or the fiasco of public relations, it is enough to slow or destroy a project that is in the early stages of fundraising and development.
The third reason related to this is that ethical companies can attract investment. Some investors are aware of the link between morality and actual failure. Others are more inclined to ethical investment because of their social responsibility. Funds that manage pensions in my academic writings have an “ethical investment” option when deciding to deploy – this is not uncommon in Australia. I know that this choice is mainly to prevent my money from investing in tobacco production and weapons manufacturing, but it is still a powerful marketing tool. Australians' pensions are close to $2.8 trillion, so it's worth considering how to attract even a small percentage of the money.
It took me a year to watch the social media projects in the blockchain, such as Steemit and ONO, the governance dilemma of EOS, and the rise and fall of ICO. I believe that many of the people involved in these projects and the communities around them do not take into account the full meaning of their design and business decisions. Specifically, I am not sure if the blockchain-related projects should continue, or if they continue, how should they be designed, and whether there are sufficiently strict and honest questions.
What should I do? One of my main goals in 2019 is to encourage dialogue around ethics and blockchain projects, and I will be working on a home page on Mytech.press. Sometimes this may be a brief understanding of the ethics of industry practices (such as paying employee compensation in cryptocurrencies) or key mechanisms (such as entrusted equity).
But my main achievement in this area is a series of detailed in-depth studies that assess how well the blockchain project meets the ethical design criteria I mentioned earlier. This may also include illuminating any other ethical interest, such as the project's business practices or workplace culture. Therefore, I will deal with projects that span all stages of development and deployment, or even track them over time. I already have a list of potential topics at the beginning, but if the reader has any suggestions for the project or company and feels that I should check it out, please let me know.
Blockchain has the potential to revolutionize in different areas of healthcare, education, arbitration, advertising, machine learning and logistics. Moreover, as more and more funds flow into the field of cryptocurrencies, at least, the chances of subversion are considerable. In these projects, the responsibilities of designers and developers and the investors who support them are undeniable. We can continue to talk about this topic and see where it will lead us.