News Brief

A few philosophers walk into a tech conference

Berlin’s annual IFA consumer electronics conference is not, generally, a political affair. Walk past its nearly 2,000 exhibitors and tens of thousands of visitors and you’ll be greeted with “innovation engines,” calls to “do your laundry #LikeABosch” and demonstrations of advanced air conditioners (I didn’t feel a difference). At one of many “cooking shows,” presenters bragged about a cutting-edge oven while doing backflips.

But in a large side room, about a hundred researchers and technologists convened for two days to talk about the political. It was the IFA summit “dataism,” and it featured calls to, among other things, “[decenter] technology and data” and engage more aggressively with the harms caused by technology. At a later panel, a speaker questioned whether capitalism in its current form can sustain a livable planet.

At a conference where a giant wall poster boldly stated, “Always look on the bright side of technology!” it was a bit of a contrast.

But increasingly, IFA conference, like the rest of the tech world, wants to show it has a conscience.

“It’s been described as the ’elephant in the room,’” reads IFA’s daily newspaper’s front page on Monday: “Questions of trust, accountability, and ethics.”

IFA director Dirk Koslowski told me something similar:

“It’s not just any more about just doing business in terms of manufacturing new products, without knowing…what is the final result,” he said.

On Sunday, panels focused heavily on the ethical and political effects of technology. Cardiff University professor Lina Dencik focused her talk on how “the datafied society” is transforming the relationship between governments and citizens, and thereby the nature of democracy. Another speaker, AI Ethics Lab director and philosopher Cansu Canca, recommended how AI can be regulated both by companies and governments.

An especially interesting presence was that of Monash University philosopher Robert Sparrow. He kept trying to return the panel to “old-fashioned politics,” questioning the idea that our technological problems have technological solutions. He was especially critical of those who think programmers will be able to somehow engineer a better democracy, and repeatedly expressed frustration that philosophers and political scientists are usually absent from conversations about tech and democracy.

“People need to recognize that there is a body of expertise here, but it’s not in engineering faculties,” Sparrow told me. “It’s in science and technology studies, it’s in economic history, it’s in social psychology…philosophy.”

Though the panels were civil, there was a point when Sparrow disagreed sharply with his fellow panelists. Another speaker had suggested that consumer choices could pressure companies to be more ethical, something Sparrow sees as an ineffective tactic.

“A big question here is whether you think of social questions as being issues that we should confront collectively, or whether you think of them as the aggregate of individual choices,” he said. Ethics, for Sparrow, is more about how we collectively organize a society than about the behavior of an individual tech consumer.

In some ways, Sparrow said, the ongoing techlash has been good for him and other philosophers. He said there has “absolutely” been an uptick in interest in his work, and in these kinds of speaking engagements, beyond the IFA conference.

But, he added, “it’s a slightly poisoned chalice for philosophy, because you’ve got ten minutes. It’s hard to make a good philosophical argument in ten minutes.” The incentive to be brief but memorable, he said, means that “short, superficial, and radical” messages are more successful.

“Someone who makes an argument that makes people deeply uncomfortable is not necessarily going to be invited back,” he said. “And maybe sometimes those are the arguments that need to be heard.”