Mary Branscombe (marypcb) wrote,
Mary Branscombe

Work ethic(s)

I've been thinking about the power of persuasion, and what I consider the ethical ways to do it, because of a few things coming together. There was the Inc article about Kevin Rose, which just about hit credulous but fell a little short of fawning. I haven't been that excited about Digg because it's obviously so easy to game (100 people own the front screen and some of them are open to fiscal leverage: removing some of them from the list won't change the fact that you have a gameable system).

Also, it's crowd-sourcing editing. Not only is writing and editing content how I make the money to eat, it's also something I think has intrinsic value. About five minutes after the first Web site was posted, someone compared it to the Caxton press or the Gutenberg Bible; about ten minutes later someone else said this meant the end of the tyranny of editors as gatekeepers. Let a million flowers bloom! Some editors have been too restrictive, they've favoured friends and cronys (the Christmas analysis of book-back-scratching in Private Eye sums it up perfectly). But good editing doesn't just point out good content; it improves it. I stopped being able to plough through the Harry Potter books about the time J K Rowling became successful enough to dispense with talking to her agent or editor. To quote from a hardware developer at the WinHEC conference, I'd welcome some adult supervision here.

But what the Inc article told me was that Digg hadn't just been a 'by its bootstraps' 'on its own merits' success. Rose had a TV show and he used it to promote Digg regularly, without ever saying it was his own site; he did once say it was run by 'a friend'. That's outside my ethics, as is passing on embargoed material to a colleague who hasn't signed the non-disclosure agreement so they can publish it - as one major US publisher did at the Windows 7 reviewer workshop.

There was the abortion episode of Boston Legal, which presented some compelling pro-life arguments that stumped the pro-choice characters; they won their case but were shown losing their faith. I'm sure even showing an episode about abortion on prime time TV is brave, and I'm not calling the arguments compelling because I agree with them - it's a complicated question and no easy answers. But the balance of pro-choice argument was really just anti-anti-choice and it felt like someone rehearsing lines they could no longer deliver with conviction. Regardless of what I might personally believe, presenting an argument as being hard to make can be a subtle way of presenting it as wrong.

(As an aside, summing anything - ethical argument to relationship - up as 'it's complicated' is coming to feel like an abdication of responsibility to me. Don't consider the intricacies and the difficult questions: just handwave them away with a po-mo phrase.)

That's dubious persuasion and outright conflict of interest; how about 'little old me' syndrome? I'm not a pundit, says the speaker, I'm not Walt Mossberg, I don't have to research my opinions or work at understanding things - I can stick with gut reaction and off-the-cuff comments because it's just little old me and my personal opinion. I'm not a professional technology reviewer, I'm an amateur. I'm just Stephen Fry... if I thought I was being taken seriously, he seems to say to the BBC, I'd have to approach it differently. What would you call a technology review column in the Guardian magazine? Unless he write it for free, he's made himself a technology reviewer and he is being taken seriously. Now in my mind, that imposes a responsibility to be accurate, more than fair and to make yourself well informed. He may be bang on the nail about the Storm - I haven't had a chance to actually use one yet - but if you get paid for it, it's specious to call your self an amateur. If I say something here in my blog about technology, can I be less accurate or less fair than in an article I'm paid for? If so, why?

Full disclosure: I met Stephen Fry at the launch of one Psion PDA or another, where he has been hired to do part of the presentation. Whatever Psion it was, it weighed around 200g; much the same as a bottle of shampoo or a bar of chocolate, he said. He complained publicly that it was very nice, but it didn't do X or Y. Yes it does, I told him when I saw him in the general milling around at the end - they've done that for years, but you have to connect them to a PC, not a Mac. Ah, he said; and I only use a Mac. This was at a time when Apple had at most 2% market share and I was not supposed to tell AOL subscribers complaining that the Mac client lagged behind in features that it wasn't economical to update it because the percentage of AOL users on Macs was well below 2%. (I would always crack and tell them - it's why I'd never make it in marketing). The claim that it didn't do X or Y did make it into a couple of news stories, without the only-on-a-Mac caveat.

Today, a blog saying that the Storm will have vibrotactile feedback quickly becomes gospel even if it's not true. Alas, in busting that myth, I speculated that although Wi-Fi was left out of the Storm because it wouldn't fit, haptics might have not made it because it would affect battery life. I marked it, I thought, as blatant speculation - but it got picked up and passed on as fact. I dislike the echo chamber amplification of blogs, where things are repeated as much as they're analysed and I think that makes it even more important to disclose your interests and do your research... But then I don't like Wikipedia's cultural Mao-ism either.
Tags: rant, technology, writing

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