Dita De Boni: the moral obligations at Silicon Valley

Opinion: Dita De Boni considers the responsibilities of those working in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley is a place of enormous innovation, free-thinking and wealth. Living there, one imagines, is a bit like paradise on earth: low taxes, exciting work with lots of free pizza and unlimited sick leave, and hobnobbing with some of the most exceptional brains in the world.

Hedonistic, cerebral wonderland it may be, but it seems that living in Silicon Valley is not enough for some of its more restless residents. If the stories are to be believed, many of them spend years plotting and planning to live completely free of government oversight in more remote corners of the world.

Seasteading was until recently a very real fascination with those from the Valley of Silicon: an extreme libertarian fantasy of island states where those with enough money lived out of reach of authorities. We’ve all heard about Elon Musk’s fantasy of establishing a colony on Mars. The latest would-be colonisers from Silicon Valley belong to the Open Lunar Foundation, a group of tech mavens and engineers who want to establish a “harmonious human settlement” on the moon. The single-digit billions price tag seems to be no matter at all.

It is little wonder that students and postgraduates from New Zealand flock to put themselves in the middle of Silicon Valley, where they can observe not just brilliance, but the application of that brilliance to the market.

When students are also placed within spaces where genuine innovation and entrepreneurship occur, it shows them what can be achieved with the right machinery in place – where ideas really are valuable, and nurturing them a genuine and tangible business goal.

I believe, though, that the students need to understand that with enormous freedom and influence comes enormous responsibility. It is not clear that the pioneers of Silicon Valley always understood that – and some perhaps still don’t.

There’s probably been little reason for some to imagine they need to think too deeply about the ramifications of the technological advances they unleash on the world.

Mark Zuckerberg did not realise, when he set about connecting college students over ‘TheFacebook’ in 2004, that one day his platform would be used to help manipulate the public into voting for Brexit or a Trump presidency. He did not realise that one day people would be able to download and watch the real-life massacre of 51 Muslim New Zealanders – and be part of an instantly connected movement spreading hate and racial vilification across the world.

The problem goes far beyond Zuckerberg. Take, for example, the way the extremely valuable personal data collected by many of these sites is being made available to all sorts of bad actors.

There’s also the issue of where much of the seed and expansion funding in Silicon Valley comes from. According to a recent New York Times article, there’s plenty of it coming from the likes of Saudi Arabia, which only recently and brazenly assassinated a journalist it did not like.

Increasingly, Silicon Valley bigwigs are being forced to wake up to the ethical dimensions of their enormous omnipresence. At a recent San Francisco conference on the future of artificial intelligence, for example, Microsoft openly debated the idea of not selling facial recognition technology to some clients, and Google discounted selling a face ID service at all, for supposedly ethical reasons.

It’s not too cynical to surmise they are jumping before they are pushed. They are appointing ‘chief ethics officers’, they are meeting with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and promising to take down their most egregious content more quickly; they may even be half-heartedly agreeing to pay some sort of tax in the countries in which they make their highest profits. This may be more a result of being smart and future-focused than out of a genuine sense of moral obligation. Nevertheless, it addresses a growing stain on the amazing reputation of Silicon Valley, which has given so much that is positive to humanity.

It is now time for all of us, from the tech mavens to the tech users and the fledgling entrepreneurs, to look more closely at the human legacy of what is created in that amazing place.

This article first appeared in the Spring Ingenio 2019 issue

About the writer: Alumna Dita De Boni (BA, Italian/Russian) is a senior journalist with The National Business Review and has worked in print, television and radio journalism for more than 20 years.