Communication Ethics book part for But What About... . (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)
in Communication Ethics
I've been thinking about this and debating these issues for a while. I see the same counterarguments over and over again, but the problem is not that they are wrong, it's that they simply don't apply. As usual, they boil down to bad physical metaphors being applied in a domain where our physical intuition is nearly useless:
- Are you saying it's unethical to watch television with sunglasses on? The television producer never intended you to see it that darkly.
Two things are wrong with this: Sunglasses do not contain any communication in any meaningful sense. And second, even to the extent you could call it communication (since the effects of sunglasses could conceivably be described as a software image manipulation), the effects are independent of the content you are viewing. There are never any circumstances where it's unethical to wear sunglasses from a communication ethics point of view, because the "content" of the sunglasses will never depend on what you are looking at.
- What about the manufacturer's logo on my television? Is it unethical for the logo to be there, since it affects my viewing? Again, no, the logo is fully independent of the content being watched. Same for television overlay menus, which I previously mentioned explicitly.
- Are you saying you think it's unethical to rewind, or skip commercials, or watch a program backwards? No, you can manipulate content on your end as you please, as long as it is kept away from other content. Again, even if you describe "rewinding" or "fast forward" in terms of software (which it may well be if the device being used is digital, like a TiVo), that software is independent of the content and does not itself modify the manipulated content by changing the concrete parts of the content; a program watched in reverse is the same program.
All of these misinterpretations of what I'm saying center around missing the primary point: The point is not about trying to limit what the receiver can do. The point is the message should be kept pure. As long as the message remains untouched by other external messages, the receiver is free to do as they please.
Of course identical arguments can be made in any physical domain, not just television. I use television because it's the one that seems to be brought up most often, even when the debate does not otherwise involve them.
Similarly, even when the debate doesn't involve annotation, people frequently defend integrity attacks in terms of annotation, so for the flip side arguments let me express them in terms of shared website annotation:
- Why shouldn't I be allowed to annotate websites? It's just like writing a comment in a newspaper then passing it to my friend, and there's nothing wrong with that. Well, it's true that there is nothing wrong with writing a comment in a newspaper and passing it to your friend. But website annotation is more like running around and writing that comment in all the newspapers in town.
No, wait, it's more like breaking into the printing facility and changing the print run to contain these new comments.
No, wait, it's like distributing special glasses that only change what people see in the newspaper for people who put them on. (Seriously, as silly as this sounds it will inevitably come up in an annotation debate, and as far as I know it's independently created each time. When your metaphors get this out of touch with reality, it's time to ask whether your metaphor is useless or if your argument is that hopelessly absurd. Or, as in this case, both.)
No, wait, it's more like...
The reality is that there is no physical metaphor that matches what happens with website annotation, or the other wide variety of message manipulations possible by inserting something between the sender and receiver. Neither justifying it nor proving it evil will be possible on the basis of a physical metaphor. That's why this more sophisticated theory is necessary.
The fact is there is a provable qualitative difference between scribbling a comment down for one person, and scribbling a comment on the newspaper that millions would see. There is a provable qualitative difference between posting on an independent (in my technical sense) message board and directly on the original content. The proof is simply that there are people who want to so annotate webpages; obviously they believe there is a difference between that and posting to a message board, or they would be content to simply post. QED.
- This is just like glasses that only change what you see when you look at billboards. Or Annotation is just like glasses that only eliminate advertisements. Or any number of other things based on glasses. I wouldn't even mention these, but they also come up every time. The problem with these arguments is there isn't even anything to refute; conveniently left out is why exactly we'd consider such glasses ethical either, especially in light of the fact that no such glasses exist and are impossible (except in extremely controlled environments) in the real world right now anyhow. Proof by irrelevant metaphor?
The basic fallacy here is an attempt to divorce the effects of a process from its technical implementation. These metaphors are all trying to justify the technical methods used to do the annotation, but fail twice: First because the physical metaphors can't conceivably apply anyhow, and second because it's not the mechanism that's the problem anyhow. Follow the effects. The real pertinent question is whether or not the effect of website annotation is ethical or not, regardless of how it is done, and I believe I've made a convincing argument that they are not ethical.
In fact this argument traps most people who use it, because they are not willing to follow it to its logical conclusion. First, if the technology is OK regardless of how it is used, as these metaphors implicitly argue, then they must prepare to have it used against them by other people, including big corporations. Secondly, the same technology can do all of the things mentioned in this chapter; sure, it may seem like fun to annotation Microsoft's web page, but are they prepared to live in a world where Microsoft can make 90%+ of the web browsers hitting their web site see a special Microsoft-approved version, where Microsoft dynamically twists the page to say what Microsoft wants it to say? It's the same technology; to be consistent this needs to bother you not at all.
This reveals a strength of this ethical theory. Many people proposing the arguments above genuinely have a hard time seeing the difference between website annotation and scribbling a note to their buddy, which I can't blame them for because it took me a long time to articulate it myself. Using this theory helps us see the differences like differences of scale and differences of effect on the concrete parts that go into a final message. Even if you don't agree that the differences affect anything, you can still now see that there are indeed real differences between the two actions, and that as a result, proving that note-scribbling is ethical by no means automatically proves wide-scale website annotation is; they are more different then they are similar and convincing me otherwise will take much more then that.