Edward Snowden and the virtues of courage, magnanimity, justice and civility

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

From: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/2803762/images/o-EDWARD-SNOWDEN-facebook.jpg

Edward Snowden is an American computer professional, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, and former contractor for the United States government. In 2013 he copied and leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA). He revealed numerous surveillance programs of the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance with the cooperation of telecom operators and European governments.

“A subject of controversy, Snowden has been variously called a hero, a whistleblower, a dissident, a traitor, and a patriot. His disclosures have fueled debates over mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security and information privacy.”

Despite the controversy, I believe that Snowden embodies the technomoral virtues of courage and magnanimity.

In a TED Talk (above), Snowden reflects: “I want to make it very clear that I did not do this to be safe. I did this to do what is right. And I am not going to stop my work in the public interest, just to benefit myself”. He saw the dangers of mass surveillance and acted bravely, for the common good, and paid a high personal price–he had to flee the US and has been living in exile since. This concurs with Vallor’s definition of the technomoral virtue of courage: “a reliable disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (p. 131).

Furthermore, Snowden exemplifies moral ambition and leadership; he acted from the conviction that mass surveillance needs to be checked and balanced with other values, such as privacy and transparency. This resonates with Vallor’s definition of magnanimity as a technomoral virtue that “enables and encourages moral ambition and moral leadership, two things sorely lacking in our contemporary technomoral milieu.”

Moreover, Snowden promotes the virtues of justice and civility.

In the same TED Talk (above) Snowden states: “We don’t have to give up our privacy to have good government. We don’t have to give up our library to have security”. He promotes finding better balances between security and privacy in the work of agencies like the NSA. This is in line with Vallor’s definition of the technomoral virtue of justice: a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (p. 128).

Finally, when asked to reflect on his role, in the same TED Talk (above), Snowden replies that he sees himself primarily as a citizen–a citizen concerned with values like privacy and transparency. This is in line with Vallor’s definition of civility: “a sincere disposition to live well with one’s fellow citizens of a globally networked information society: to collectively and wisely deliberate about matters of local, national, and global policy and political action” (2016, p. 141).


Possibly, you find that Edward Snowden Aimee van embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

Advertisements

Sherry Turkle and the virtues of empathy, courage, civility and care

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

Sherry Turkle headshotFrom: https://sherryturkle.com/

Sherry Turkle embodies the technomoral virtues of empathy, courage, civility and care.

“Sherry Turkle has spent the last 30 years exploring the relationship between people and technology. It’s complex. It’s ever-changing. And it affects everything – how we work and learn, how we parent and govern, and even how we love.”

Sherry Turkle obtained a BA in Social Studies and a Ph.D. in Sociology and Personality Psychology at Harvard University, and joined MIT in 1976, where she works as a Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology. For over 30 years, she has studied people’s relationships to computers. She wrote a series of best-selling books: “The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit” (1984), about how computers affect the ways in which we look at ourselves and the way we think and act, “Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet” (1995), about how people can go into virtual worlds, interact with others, and explore multiple identities, and “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” (2011), about how our obsession with devices and connectivity corrodes natural, organic, genuine communication.

In her most recent book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” (2015), she offers a diagnosis of the problem: our obsession with devices and being always ‘on’ and connected made us forget the benefits of solitude (we’re so afraid for boredom that we fill every minute of free time staring at devices), we forgot how to connect to others (we’ve lost basic skills for making conversations, we’re avoiding ‘awkward’ conversations and thus have lost basic skills for empathy), and we forgot how to organize conversations in groups (most people are staring at their screens, in schools, in work places, etc.). In addition, she gives some practical ‘self help’ advice: to make an effort, to put your phone away, to learn to be alone, to learn to connect to others, and to learn how to foster genuine conversations. The key problem, i.e. a lack of conversations, can be solved by exactly that what’s lacking, by having better conversations.

The chairs on the book’s cover are a visual reference to a quote by Henry David Thoreau: “I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society“.

Turkle has conducted ethnographic studies with thousands of people over more than 30 years, and over the course of those years, these conversations have made her concerned. In the 1980’s computers were exciting; we could use them as tools to explore our identities. But now, in the 2010’s our tools are controlling us. These interactions moved her to want to ameliorate this situation. She is simultaneously worried, about the lack of conversation, and hopeful, about the potential of better conversations as a solution.

In her work, Turkle embodies the technomoral virtues of empathy, which Vallor defines as a “cultivated openness to being morally moved to caring action by the emotions of other members of our technosocial world” (2016, p. 133), and of courage: “a reliable disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (2016, p. 131).

Moreover, through her work, she advocates cultivating the technomoral virtues of civility, which Vallor defines as “a sincere disposition … to collectively and wisely deliberate about matters of local, national, and global policy and political action; to communicate, entertain, and defend our distinct conceptions of the good life; and to work cooperatively toward those goods of technosocial life that we seek and expect to share with others” (2016, p. 141), and of care, which Vallor defines as “a skillful, attentive, responsible, and emotionally responsive disposition to personally meet the needs of those with whom we share our technosocial environment” (2016, p. 138). With her analysis and advice, she urges us to reclaim conversation, to cultivate the skills of conversation, for the sake of civility and humanity, as an act of care to our fellow humans. 


Possibly, you find that Sherry Turkle embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

Tristan Harris and the virtues of self-control, civility and humility

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

From: http://www.tristanharris.com/

Tristan Harris embodies the technomoral virtue of self-control.

His mission to make us aware of the ways in which we use technologies–most notably our mobile phones and social networking services–and the ways in which we become increasingly addicted to these. He explains that these technologies are a by-product of the business models of companies like Facebook and Google–they want to grab people’s attention and sell it to advertisers; and the algorithms they use–these algorithms provide exactly that context that will pull you in and keep your eyes glued to the screen, with your index finger or thumb ready to make the ‘refresh’ swipe every couple of minutes.

Harris graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Computer Science, focused on Human Computer Interaction, behavioral economics, social psychology, behavior change and habit formation in Professor BJ Fogg’s Stanford Persuasive Technology lab. He was CEO of Apture, which Google acquired in 2011, and worked at Google, as Design Ethicist and left at 2016 to found the non-profit initiative, “Time Well Spent“. In 2018 he founded the Center for Humane Technology.

The center advocates “four levers to redefine our future: Inspire Humane Design; Apply Political Pressure; Create a Cultural Awakening; and Engage Employees”. Moreover, they provide practical suggestions to take control of your phone: “Try these simple changes to live more intentionally with your devices right now“.

Harris wants us to cultivate self-control, a virtue which Shannon Vallor defines as an “ability in technomoral contexts to choose, and ideally to desire for their own sakes, those goods and experiences that most contribute to contemporary and future human flourishing” (2016, p. 124). If we cultivate self-control, we can free ourselves from our addiction to technology and use it in ways that support human flourishing. Self-control is not a disposition against technology, but a disposition to use technology consciously and productively.

Harris also champions the technomoral virtues of civility and humility.

Civility, because he warns us that the cultivation of self-control is underneath all our social interactions and the fabric of society. When we are all glued to our screens, meekly following the algorithms’ recommendations, we are unable to have conversations–conversations with others and with our inner ourselves, about ‘the good life’, how we want to organize our societies and live our daily lives. Self-control is thus a key condition for cultivating the virtue of civility–to deliberation and collective action.

Vallor defines civility as “a sincere disposition to live well with one’s fellow citizens of a globally networked information society: to collectively and wisely deliberate about matters of local, national, and global policy and political action; to communicate, entertain, and defend our distinct conceptions of the good life; and to work cooperatively toward those goods of technosocial life that we seek and expect to share with others” (2016, p. 141)

And humility, because he stresses that technology by itself is not necessarily evil, but that we need to focus on the ends we want to realize–and then use our technologies as means to realize those ends. He warns us not to believe in technology, but to free ourselves from our addiction to technology and to be free to choose technologies in ways that support human flourishing. We need to let go of our blind faith in technology and treat it as a means, not as an end.

Vallor defines humility as a “recognition of the real limits of our technosocial knowledge and ability; … and renunciation of the blind faith that new technologies inevitably lead to human mastery and control of our environment” (2016, p. 126-7).


Possibly, you find that Tristan Harris embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or email me at:  marc.steen-at-tno.nl