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Monday, October 7, 2019

Ethics a distant second to profits in Silicon Valley

Gabriel Fairman
Originally published September 9, 2019

Here is an excerpt:

For ethics to become a part of the value system that drives behavior in Silicon Valley, it would have to be incentivized as such. I have a hard time envisioning a world were ethics can offer shareholders huge returns. Ethics is about doing the right thing, and the right thing and the lucrative thing typically don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

Everyone can understand ethics. Basic questions such as “Will this be good for the world in a year, 10 years or 20 years?”, “Would I want this for my kids?” are easy litmus tests to differentiate between ethical and unethical conduct. The challenge is that considerations on ethics slow down development by raising challenges and concerns early on.  Ethics are about amplifying potential problems that can be foreseen down the road.

On the other hand, venture-funded start-ups are about minimizing the ramifications of these problems as they move on quickly. How can ethics compete with billion-dollar exits? It can’t. Ethics are just this thing that we read about in articles or hear about in lectures. It is not driving day-to-day decision-making. You listen to people in boardrooms asking, “How will this impact our valuation?,” or “What is the ROI of this initiative?” but you don’t hear top-level execs brainstorming about how their product or company could be more ethical because there is no compensation tied to that. The way we have built our world, ethics are just fluff.

We are also extraordinary at differentiating private vs. public lives. Many people working at tech companies don’t allow their kids to use electronic devices ubiquitously or would not want their kids bossed around by an algorithm as they let go of full-time employee benefits. But they promote these things and further them because these things are highly profitable, not because they are fundamentally good. This key distinction between private and public behavior allows people to behave in wildly hypocritical ways, by helping advance the very things they do not want in their own homes.

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