Governance, growth, and equity

When I studied environmental issues, I was taught three lenses through which to understand them:

  • The neo-Malthusians emphasized resource scarcity, natural limits, and scientific management. Most conservationists and environmental scientists fit this perspective.
  • The Cornucopians emphasized markets, technology, and humanity’s ability to invent its way out of shortages. Their ranks include lots of economists and Silicon Valley-types; the Simon-Ehrlich wager is a canonical example of the cornucopian viewpoint prevailing.
  • Finally, Political Ecologists emphasized environmental justice. They asked who would be harmed by pollution and by policies to limit it, and whose voices were left out of decision-making.

These three perspectives served me well, including when my job involved following climate policy closely. And lately I have been thinking about something similar to understand the governance and ethics of technology. I will call these three perspectives: Governance, growth, and equity.

  • The governance perspective emphasizes better management and regulation of existing technologies, new or old. It tries to maximize benefits and minimize harms. Lawrence Lessig’s book Code 2.0 is, to me, a definitive articulation of the governance view: Lessig took the idea of code and conceived of it as one more way to regulate. Laws, norms, and markets all regulate our lives, constraining and enabling behavior. Code was a form of “architecture”–how something is “designed” or “built”–and architecture was the fourth form of regulation. Lessig was interested in both how we would regulate behavior on the internet and how the code itself would regulate us.
  • The growth perspective emphasizes technology’s ability to raise living standards over time by solving new problems and making humans more productive. This perspective asks: Are we investing enough in new ideas and technologies and are we properly incentivizing those things given the market failures that surround them? The best articulations of this view, in my opinion, come from the economics of ideas, innovation, and new growth theory. For a comprehensive view on the benefits of technology, see Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth.
  • Finally, the equity view asks who bears the harms of new technologies and whose voices are left out of building and regulating tech. It emphasizes inclusion and democracy and is skeptical of concentrated power. Meredith Whitaker’s 2021 essay “The steep cost of capture,” on the dangers of concentrating AI research in a few large, for-profit firms, captures this view. So does Sheila Jasanoff’s essay “‘Preparedness’ Won’t Stop the Next Pandemic.” They question the assumptions of the growth and governance views, and reorient the discussion to consideration of power.

The lesson of many-model thinking is that combining different mental models of a problem or phenomenon often yields better results than trying to just pick the best model. In the context of environmental issues, many people are drawn to one of the three perspectives I described, and maybe have at least some sympathy for a second. But many of them are skeptical or even dismissive of at least one, and so are at risk for missing something important about those issues.

One starting point for thinking through tech ethics is to consider the issue from all three perspectives. Take the harms of social media.

  • The governance view would emphasize laws and regulations that could constrain social media companies and management practices those companies could use to minimize harm. The governance view recommends things like creating a fiduciary duty for platforms, auditing algorithms, and enforcing antitrust law.
  • The growth view emphasizes technical fixes–like better algorithmic content moderation–that can mitigate harm. And it points out the importance of new entrants and competition to speed along those improvements.
  • The equity view questions whether companies and an industry that are not at all representative of the societies they serve can ever operate responsibly. It suggests more fundamentally decentralized, participatory platforms, owned and managed as a commons. Its interest in antitrust goes beyond lowering prices to raise a more radical critique of concentrated economic power. And it insists that marginalized communities be included in discussions of how to improve social media.

On any given issue, one of these perspectives might be stronger or weaker. I don’t find the growth view all that helpful when it comes to social media, for example–but in a discussion of handling pandemics or governing AI I believe the growth view would have a lot to add.

The trick for those thinking about the ethics of tech is to consider all three perspectives and then use judgment to strike the right balance between them. But the starting point should be considering the concerns of governance, of growth, and of equity.

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