Ethics and technology – the eyes have it

Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Socrates is watching.

This article was originally published in June 2012.

I was just reading that Woolworths is cutting back on the number of self-service checkouts in some stores. The headline reason given is that it will speed up the checkout process; which is not all that surprising given how fiddly it is to checkout by yourself. But the subtext reason is that too many people are ripping-off the system – cheating it, or more simply stealing.

Stealing while using a self-service checkout is not all that difficult. There’s the brutal approach of simply neglecting to scan something – which most people would immediately characterise as shoplifting. More subtle actions include selecting a cheaper fruit or vegetable item (for example selecting carrots instead of the more expensive bananas). Apparently far fewer people characterise this as stealing, although they recognise it is ‘cheating’. According to the Sydney Morning Herald last year something like 16 per cent of people admit to cheating at the self-service checkout. In the UK that number is more like a third. Either way, that’s a lot of people.

Apparently our willingness to do the wrong thing comes down to observation. As long as no one is looking over our shoulder many of us are prepared do chose the dark side of the force. And the modern world is simply giving us more and more opportunities to undertake actions in the relative anonymity that encourages people to steal, cheat or bully.

It’s not just about self-service checkouts. People will steal content online in a way they never would in hardcopy. People will say things to others online that they never would in person. People will accept a level of bullying online that would ring immediate alarm bells in the real world. People will download pirated music. The list goes on.

Technology is increasingly making us personally anonymous. We’re not dealing with real people, just real machines fronting for impersonal organisations: the bank is the ATM or a web interface, the supermarket is an automated checkout, Apple is the iTunes store. It’s not only that there’s no one looking over our shoulder as we interact these days, there’s no one even looking into our face.

There have been a number of studies which have shown that many people will break the rules if no one is watching. Equally there are studies which show that people’s behaviour will change if there is even the illusion that they are being watched. For example, a few years ago researchers from Newcastle University found that just putting up posters of eyes in a cafeteria can demonstrably change people’s littering behaviour.

Observation is clearly part of the issue, but there is, I would argue, more to it than that. Would you go into your local store and finding the shop-keeper was busy out the back walk out with a carton of beer? I think most people would say ‘no’ to that. That would be clearly stealing. But sliding a carton past the self-service checkout is somehow perceived differently. There’s a sense that you’re dealing with a computer, not people. That’s a dangerously powerful mixture – a sense of anonymity taken together with the underlying idea that you are dealing with machines rather than real people. I also wonder if that extends to online social interactions – perhaps the real person who you chatted with over coffee earlier in the day becomes something different and less real when you criticise them later that evening as a ‘friend’ on Facebook.

A few weeks ago someone described ethics to me as ‘it’s what you decide to do when no one is watching you’. As technology allows you to do more and more with no one watching, there’s an increasing need for an ethical framework to guide decisions. A Harvard study on youths using the web a couple of years ago found that most young people are devoid of ethical thinking or consideration for others when using the web. They were incapable of looking at the consequences of their actions beyond themselves or a close circle of friends.

So what to do? Returning to the study mentioned above about staring eyes changing behaviours, apparently this is an unconscious reaction and one it is very difficult to ignore. So maybe we need more computers with pictures of eyes at the top. Or better yet, maybe we all just need to think about our actions and consider whether we would do the same thing if someone was watching: that would be the ethical approach. It’s the very fact that we are being watched less and less that makes our own internal watcher more and more important.

That said, we seem to be living an oxymoron, experiencing two things in parallel which are apparent contradictions. On the one hand we have increasing levels of anonymity in the way we interact with people and organisations. Yet simultaneously our privacy, when we are identified, is being thoroughly eroded.

If you are caught doing the wrong thing, the use of technology can make that move resound hugely and quickly. Once your anonymity is stripped away it you are left more exposed than ever before. Last week a married actor made a pass at the young model he was sitting beside on the plane. Not illegal but sleazy and mildly unpleasant; certainly unethical. He probably felt safely anonymous. Then she Tweeted the experience as it happened, people tracked down his identity from comments he’d made and within hours he was infamous.

It would be good if people just did the right thing. But failing that maybe the maxim of the current age ought to be ‘watch yourself, lest everyone else starts watching you’.

And as for Woolworths and their self-service checkouts? Maybe they just need a slight alteration to their logo:

Woolworths watching.

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