posted Oct 08, 2003
in Communication Ethics

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.)

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:

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:

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.

 

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