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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Friday, August 27, 2021

It’s hard to be a moral person. Technology is making it harder.

Sigal Samuel
Originally posted 3 Aug 21

Here is an excerpt:

People who point out the dangers of digital tech are often met with a couple of common critiques. The first one goes like this: It’s not the tech companies’ fault. It’s users’ responsibility to manage their own intake. We need to stop being so paternalistic!

This would be a fair critique if there were symmetrical power between users and tech companies. But as the documentary The Social Dilemma illustrates, the companies understand us better than we understand them — or ourselves. They’ve got supercomputers testing precisely which colors, sounds, and other design elements are best at exploiting our psychological weaknesses (many of which we’re not even conscious of) in the name of holding our attention. Compared to their artificial intelligence, we’re all children, Harris says in the documentary. And children need protection.

Another critique suggests: Technology may have caused some problems — but it can also fix them. Why don’t we build tech that enhances moral attention?

“Thus far, much of the intervention in the digital sphere to enhance that has not worked out so well,” says Tenzin Priyadarshi, the director of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT.

It’s not for lack of trying. Priyadarshi and designers affiliated with the center have tried creating an app, 20 Day Stranger, that gives continuous updates on what another person is doing and feeling. You get to know where they are, but never find out who they are. The idea is that this anonymous yet intimate connection might make you more curious or empathetic toward the strangers you pass every day.

They also designed an app called Mitra. Inspired by Buddhist notions of a “virtuous friend” (kalyāṇa-mitra), it prompts you to identify your core values and track how much you acted in line with them each day. The goal is to heighten your self-awareness, transforming your mind into “a better friend and ally.”

I tried out this app, choosing family, kindness, and creativity as the three values I wanted to track. For a few days, it worked great. Being primed with a reminder that I value family gave me the extra nudge I needed to call my grandmother more often. But despite my initial excitement, I soon forgot all about the app.