The Troubling Ethics of Writing (A Speech from Ancient Sumer)

post by Cullen_OKeefe · 2021-02-15T20:17:36.979Z · EA · GW · 1 comments

Cross-posted from my personal blog

(Translated from a transcript of an ancient Sumerian speech by Uruk's most well-respected Scriptological Ethicist)

Writing is a profoundly dangerous technology:

  1. Access to writing was initially, and still remains, uneven. What's worse, the rich are more likely to be literate, so it not only creates inequalities but exacerbates existing ones.
  2. Written language embodies the biases and prejudices of the people responsible for writing. Writing makes those prejudices more permanent and influential than they would otherwise be.
  3. Relatedly, writing allows for the more rapid spread of harmful speech, including false, misleading, defamatory, divisive, and hateful speech.
  4. Because only a few people can understand any given piece of writing, and because the functioning of the human mind is opaque, the process of moving from written words to effects on readers is a sort of "black box" that is inscrutable and evades accountability.
  5. The processes of producing the instruments of writing—paper, ink, clay, reeds—have profound environmental impacts. They cause deforestation and destruction of wildlife.
  6. Writing grows the economy, which will exacerbate inequality.
  7. Writing threatens the livelihood of those employed in the oral communication economy.
  8. Because of its permanence, writing poses an extreme privacy threat—what's written about your actions can survive for decades and even past your death. With writing, there is no "right to be forgotten."
  9. Relatedly, with writing, anyone can write anything about real-life people, potentially in very descriptive and persuasive terms. Such "deepfakes" pose extreme risks of both privacy violations and security.
  10. Because writing, unlike oral speech, is not necessarily associated with a specific speaker, writing erodes accountability.

Writing was clearly a very dangerous technology, and it's not clear that it is even net beneficial given these very grave risks. Proponents of writing argue that it will make process more efficient, drive economic growth, and enable new downstream technologies. Yet these are all speculative, and economic growth may not be desirable if it runs these risks. Furthermore, economic growth first and most prominently benefits the rich—the 99% of us employed in backbreaking agriculture will see little immediate benefit from this new technology.

Writers and industries that hire them are therefore morally suspect and deserve dramatically heightened public scrutiny. We should block adoption and dissemination of this technology as much as possible until all of the preceding issues are fully resolved. We should criticize any writer or writing system that is developed and deployed without fully resolving these issues.

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comment by Linch · 2021-02-16T04:32:56.581Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

For a more serious (but still fictional) treatment of the issues of the transformative impact of writing and analogous technologies in the (near) future, readers here might be interested in the sci-fi short story The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling by Ted Chiang.