Thursday, November 16, 2023

Bad People Versus Bad Institutions

In his latest LOCUS essay, Cory Doctorow discusses whether "all the internet services we enjoyed and came to rely upon became suddenly and irreversibly terrible – as the result of moral decay." Setting aside the question of whether "irreversibly terrible" is a bit exaggerated, he reasonably states that "it’s tempting to think that the people who gave us the old, good internet did so because they were good people," and the internet was ruined, if it was, by bad people:

Don't Be Evil

The problem isn't that simple, however, since institutions, not individuals, created the internet. On the other hand, institutions comprise many individuals, some with honorable motives and some driven solely by the quest for profit. In short, "institutional action is the result of its individuals resolving their conflicts." Can corporations as such be evil? Doctorow doesn't seem to be saying that's the case. Every institution, private or public, includes multitudes of people, with conflicting goals, some good and some bad -- both the individuals and their goals. Moreover, as he doesn't explicitly mention, some people's characters and motivations are neither all good nor all bad. Many drift along with the corporate culture from fear of the consequences of resistance or maybe just from failure to think through the full implications of what's going on. He does seem to be suggesting, however, that vast, impersonal forces can shape negative outcomes regardless of the contrary wishes of some people involved in the process. "Tech didn’t get worse because techies [workers in the field] got worse. Tech got worse because the condition of the external world made it easier for the worst techies to win arguments."

What solutions for this quandary could be tried, other than "burn them [the allegedly villainous "giants of the internet" such as Amazon and Google] to the ground," in my opinion a bit too drastic? Doctorow insists, "A new, good internet is possible and worth fighting for," and lists some aspects he believes must change. Potential avenues for improvement can be summarized by the need to empower the people who mean well -- the ones Doctorow describes as "people within those institutions who pine for a new, good internet, an internet that is a force for human liberation" -- over those who disregard the concerns of their customers in single-minded greed for profit.

On the wider topic of individual responsibility for the villainous acts of institutions over which one doesn't have any personal control, one might be reminded of the contemporary issue of reparations to historically oppressed groups. Of course, one can quit a job and seek a more ethical employer, but renouncing one's nationality or ethnic ancestry would be severely problematic. However, since that subject veers into "modpol" (modern politics, as strictly banned on an e-mail list I subscribe to), I'll simply point out C. S. Lewis's essay, in a different context, about repenting of other people's sins:

Dangers of National Repentance

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

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