Who’s In Charge? Exploring Internet Ethics with Mercedes Bunz

 
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As Senior Lecturer on Digital Societies at King's College London, Mercedes Bunz understands our connected world more than most.  

Moving from Germany to join The Guardian as a technology reporter, Mercedes has spent the last ten years exploring the forefront of the internet. Her latest book, The Internet of Things looks at the increasing role connected ‘things’ play in our lives.

We caught up to talk about the ever-expanding digital world, what increased connectivity means for society and the role of organisations bringing us together.

Hi Mercedes, let’s start by hearing about your first experiences with the internet?

When I studied philosophy and art history in the nineties, I wrote essays in my university’s computer room where they had internet. You still used a landline and dial-up modem that made weird noises.

There were already some fascinating discussions on a mailbox forum happening called The Thing, which had been set up in New York by Wolfgang Staehle, it was loved by the art community at that time.

What’s the biggest shift in technology you’ve seen so far?

What amazes me is how quickly humans forget. The early internet, for example, was organised by scientists and it was all about sharing knowledge. Now the web is dominated by business and to most it seems like it always was. The good thing is that this changed in the past, so the internet might transform again.  

What about in terms of the trends you see approaching?

Our mobile phone is becoming more and more a camera, but we don’t use just use it for recording. Based on image recognition, it can translate, help interact with our surroundings and provide other information.

Talking about mobiles, for much of South Asia and Sub-saharan Africa the web is often a mobile only experience. Do you think this is shaping how the internet is developing? 

In terms of mobile, we are now slightly behind. We can definitely learn from their interactions and solutions a great deal – we are now also about to become a mobile first society.

“Tech and philosophy have always been closely linked, both are about shifts of power, knowledge and understanding”


How does your background in philosophy relate to your writing?

Tech and philosophy have always been closely linked, both are about shifts of power, knowledge and understanding. It’s only recently we’ve started separating them. The debate around artificial intelligence is timeless, with the Chinese Room Experiment acting as a classic example.

Back when I studied, we looked at early language processing programs like ELIZA which simulated a psychologist interrogating you. It was programmed by Joseph Weizenbaum, who was also a philosopher.  He only fully understood what he had done when his secretary asked him to leave the room when she was talking to ELIZA! 

With internet users in India alone expected to top 500 million this year, what should we be considering as web's reach expands? 

The fact that India or China get their access a little later should not leave us under the impression we are ahead. I find it thrilling to see that different cultures use the internet and its services very differently. Even though we are all connected, there are different cultures of communication and online living.

As the web’s reach grows, do you think tech companies have a role to play in monitoring how products are being used?  

Yes. We have just woken up to the fact that, just because you can nudge the user, doesn’t mean you should. A good step. We are seeing now interviews with CEOs in Silicon Valley saying they don’t give their kids an iPad or smartphone. Bill Gates didn’t let his children have phones until age 14. Even Apple has suddenly started thinking differently about usage and screen time.

Companies need to start looking at it from an ethical perspective rather than focusing on driving user engagement. They need to ask ‘what should we do?’ and ‘how shouldn’t we do it?’

“Just because you can nudge the user, doesn’t mean you should”


What about when it comes to IoT companies?

The IoT makes us face a new dimension. Smart things seem to be silly but when they don’t function it is really serious. They are quite fundamental to our lives. For example, when a clinical device goes down, you will have a serious problem. The consequences of being disconnected become more and more severe. We need to think about the way users interact with devices with more responsibility.

Who do you think should educate users on responsible internet use in general?

The question is, whose responsibility it is to make sure your digital literacy is up to date. Is it your own as a citizen, or should be ask governments to ensure that? Currently it is a fact that our governments push us to become fully digital citizens, so they could also help share knowledge on how to do this effectively.

“We need to think about the way users interact with devices with more responsibility”


Organisations like Google and Axon already have AI ethics advisory boards, is there a similar thing happening in the IoT space?

This thinking has started. Still, most users don’t understand what kind of data our devices can gather about us, and most companies don’t give useful access to this data. At the moment Google is the only platform where you can, for example, hear all the voice commands that you’ve given of see the search terms you’ve typed in.  

The first step towards ethics will always be about transparency and empowerment.

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Special thanks to Mercedes for taking the time to be interviewed for this piece. Check out her latest book The Internet of Things or find her on Twitter here.