Technology has a Philosophy Problem: Moral Backpropagation

By Will Manidis

The Posting of Socrates

Technologists have idolized philosophy for many years now. Investors and founders such as Peter Thiel, Stewart Butterfield, and Reid Hoffman have all publicly assigned philosophy credit for their success. Others still, such as Ryan Holiday, Naval Ravikant, and, perhaps most infamously, Tim Ferris, have become popular philosophers themselves, taking to Twitter and the press to share their own particular brand of philosophical thought. But the thrust of technology’s current obsession with philosophy is misguided and dangerous.

It is difficult to pin down the origin of this obsession — many claim it is the high cooccurrence between elite philosophy and computer science programs in universities. I would like to suggest an alternative hypothesis: Philosophy provides a technologist the ability to justify, post-mortem, the profit-driven damage they do to the world.

What is perhaps most damning is how important well-reasoned philosophical thought should be to tech. For every hundred companies setting out with the mission to “change the world,” there is perhaps one asking the true philosophical questions that should be asked: What is the good society? How do I manifest it?

What happens instead is a sort of “moral backpropagation” in which developers, and the companies they empower, tactically endorse and publicly expose moral frameworks to justify their profit-driven work after the fact, and certainly after they have made the profits. Consider the oft-maligned Facebook. Its primary goal is to drive clicks to advertisers, but throughout its entire history, Facebook underwent a form of moral backpropagation, discussing the creation of a “global community” instead of the true mission.

This, like most other attempts to backpropagate moral philosophy into mission, fell flat. Just a year after Zuckerberg published his manifesto on this so-called ‘global community’, Facebook was engulfed in scandal for having allowed foreign-intelligence assets to infiltrate its platform. As Facebook’s perceived collectivist mission fell apart, Sean Parker, a former president of the company, came out to say the site was originally built to exploit “a vulnerability in human psychology.” Soon after, Zuckerberg himself publicly admitted that the platform presented clear and obvious moral problems. Moral backpropagation allowed Facebook to hide from the damage it created for nearly fourteen years.

While advocating for rigorous philosophical thought before founding a company sounds academic and idealistic, the fact is that a single founder, with or without strong, well-defined moral principles, has a disproportionate impact on the moral direction of the company for the next decade.

All great companies start as revolutions, and a revolution without a guiding set of philosophical principles is a horribly dangerous thing. Consider the founding of the United States, perhaps the world’s greatest startup. The Framers went to great lengths to establish moral frameworks in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence before even attempting growth. Imagine how different Facebook would be if it took this approach.

Moral backpropagation has been a means for Silicon Valley companies to feign a deep interest in the humanities, while avoiding meaningfully changing their behavior. A rigorous study of ethics and society should serve as a guide for any founder building a revolution — and that guidance should come before, rather than after, the revolution. Only then can technological founders truly claim that they are changing the world for the better.

Will Manidis is a partner at DormRoomFund and a researcher working in interoperability and transfer learning for large genomic datasets at Olin College. You can find tweeting about issues on the intersection of health, philosophy, and technology here.