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Leader comment: Big Tech, big subject

30 September 2022

AN OFTEN repeated axiom about Big Tech rings alarm bells for Christian anthropology immediately: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” But, although it has truth in it, it is too neat to summarise the complex moral issues that the digital world raises. For the thoughtful Christian, a better starting point is the Church of England’s paper that now sets out the policy of its national investing bodies and the advice that has influenced this. This lists many benefits of Big Tech, and adds that services free of cost at the point of use have enabled social participation for billions of poorer people. But “big” is the word for this subject, to which “inescapable” could be added; for even those most aloof from social media can hardly escape the effects of what the writers make their central theme: “a business model which draws on the aggregation of very large amounts of personal data, the analysis of that data by algorithm-based machine learning methods in order to predict human behaviour, and the monetisation of these predictions”.

This data harvest appears as searching in its own way as a first confession (the invisible working of the Spirit aside), if not more: the report quotes one writer on media platforms’ capacity to predict easily “whether you are lonely or suffer from low self-esteem” and “what your sexuality is before you know it yourself”. From this process flow many of the concerns about privacy, disinformation, democratic subversion, social polarisation, hate crime, and the psychological effect, on children especially, of extended time on social media. Such media have isolated certain aspects of human interaction and focused on them in ways that shape societies and even adults for better or worse; and this is in addition to whether they are used deliberately for good or evil (for example, the same app was used to lure a victim into domestic slavery as was used to free them). Readers will be able to think of characters ruined by the lure of attention-seeking or opportunities for put-downs.

Nevertheless, to resume the metaphor of the priest in confession, Big Tech not only learns a great deal about people which it is not permitted to reveal, but it bears a moral responsibility in doing so. Unlike the priest, whose purpose is clear in facilitating communication with a more important Other, one of the problems for Big Tech is that, other than financial gain from its anonymised data, it is not clear what higher purposes its operations serve. Here, the principles in the new report are helpful as what used to be called middle axioms, even if they raise further questions; and hence the importance of the tentative recommendations to investors on the four specific public commitments. Once the notion of moral neutrality is given up, the debate is the thing.

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