I went last week to the Netherlands for the first time! I attended the Ethics, Technology and Identity Conference in Delft and the Hague (Den Haag). Rather than focus on specific speakers, I’ll let you know what topics and ideas grab my attention (based on my own interests).
Second Life/MMORPGs: Keynote speaker J. David Velleman (philosophy, NYU) gave a wonderful presentation on how to consider identity on Second Life. In a very intelligible talk, he sketched out an intricate schema about how to think of a person’s relationship to his/her avatar and virtual worlds in general. He called Second Life “virtual play,” as opposed to “child’s play” or “imaginative play” (like when children play “make believe”). On Second Life, because the avatars are operating in a defined world (i.e., not subject to the whims of players), they are following rules/scripts, meaning they are confined to socially imposed restrictions, unlike in make believe. Moreover, in SL, avatars are assumed to be proxies for real-world persons — the actions, words, etc. are all assumed to be, in some sense, sincere (not “true,” although sometimes that as well). This is how people can fall in love on SL, and why one Stanford study showed people operate spatially in SL as they would in real life. I’m oversimplifying Velleman’s thesis, but needless to say he provided a clear framework for how to think about virtual worlds (indeed, life in general). His argument might have legal implications, making it easier to prosecute/hold people accountable for their actions in SL.
Morality and systems: Many presentations centered on whether the existence of databases of information and the structure of digital worlds had moral implications. Oscar Gandy gave a provocative and cogent keynote address on the need for informed, moral (constitutionally moral) arbiters to intervene on the behalf of those who are unfairly treated by systems (algorithms, systems analysis, statistics: like the machinations that approve mortgages, define credit scores, etc.). Others focused on what rights individuals have to control their information. Everyone mostly agreed that systems/databases are inevitable and useful, but no agreement could be reached on how we can empower people to lobby for control over their information, or decide which institutions see which kinds of information (cell phone numbers, health information, gender, etc.). I’m not sure if there will ever be consensus on this, but certainly robust database projects like the UK’s DNA database are too far-reaching and extreme to promote individual liberty. The American “voter files,” owned by private institutions and bought by politicians create much fuzzier moral terrain.
Facebook: While there weren’t too many talks focused on Facebook specifically, it was referenced a lot, and it’s easy to see why. Unlike MySpace, its less-regulated competitor, Facebook is powerful for its relative accurate information about individuals — perhaps one of the largest databases of people’s interests, politics, religions, sexualities, etc. Facebook knows this, and has been making very un-MySpace attempts to legislate truth: the latest by demanding people pick a gender, but also by taking down profiles they deem false (and occasionally messing up by taking down profiles of people who have weird last names, like “Money”) and retaining individual’s information without (informal?) consent. The motive is money: the more accurate the information, the more valuable to marketers. But what are the ethics of selling people’s identities (kinda like selling souls, no?)? And what does it mean for people to have increasingly limited options on how they express themselves (Facebook offers no MTF, FTM options, for instance)? With Microsoft’s recent investment and Facebook’s subsequent billion-dollar valuation, the website stands to be — perhaps besides Google — the largest corporation who’s asset is identity. Indeed, investors speculate that an expected Facebook IPO would be bigger than Google’s. So it’s important to be on our toes about it.
That’s all for now! I might have more later! Pictures from the Netherlands will be on my Facebook page. 😀