But why does it matter how software companies behave? People are free to use or not to use software. There is no coercion here — people are free to decide.
There are several reasons why software is important:
First, because of network effects, if many people use a given piece of software, it becomes more and more likely that you will use it, too. As a citizen of a global community, you will want to use the tools and platforms that allow you to connect with the rest of your tribe and your species. And since not all of us are engineers, we should be able to trust those of us who are to build us nourishing spaces and tools, in the same way we trust farmers to grow us good food and architects to build us good buildings.
Second, software is the staging ground for the future. The stakes are low right now, but they're about to get higher.
At this moment of transition, we're straddling the rare evolutionary threshold between two scales of existence. Darwinian evolution at the individual level is about to be transcended by another kind of evolution at the species level. The Internet is helping us wake up and see that what we really are, in addition to our individuals selves, is a network of individuals cells, composing a larger human organism. We act with individual agency, but our choices and actions (and possibly even our thoughts and our feelings) have a very real impact on the broader whole in which we exist.
Through the Internet, we are growing a species-level nervous system, capable of transmitting thoughts, ideas, and information, but also physiological reactions and empathy. This latter phenomenon is new, and we've only glimpsed it briefly several times at scale. For instance, when a young Occupy Wall Street protestor was pepper-sprayed by police at UC Davis, within a few minutes, millions of people around the world had seen the video. And many of them not only saw the video and felt a kind of moral outrage, but they also felt a kind of physical nausea — a visceral sense of pain and disgust, deep in their gut. And that part is new. It's like those millions of viewers shared a simultaneous and collective wince in response to an external stimulus affecting another human being on the other side of the world. It's as though the nervous systems of those millions of people were temporarily connected to the nervous system of the pepper-sprayed-girl, causing them to share her pain. It was only a glimmer, and it only lasted briefly, but it was prophetic of what is to come.
Soon, through the Internet, we are likely to fulfill the ancient Buddhist idea of experiencing the suffering of all living things.
As long as the Internet is external to us, it will be easy enough to turn off. But it's likely that soon, we will begin to augment our human bodies with technological components that give us direct biological access to the network.
There is already precedent for technological augmentation of the human body (pacemakers, prosthetics, etc.) so it's only a matter of time before we start accepting more and more technology into our bodies. We will soon embed wifi-enabled devices into our skin to monitor biometric signs and sync with digital health records. We'll embed cancer-fighting nanobots that swim through our bloodstream, keeping us clean. We'll embed micro-processors into our brains to provide direct access to the Internet through thought. At that point, the stage will be set for a kind of universal empathy — body to body, brain to brain, heart to heart, connecting the whole human species.
This may all sound far-fetched and sci-fi, but I mention it here to suggest what comes after software. And to show that even though the stakes are low right now (with apps and social networks), we are establishing the ethics and cultural norms that underlie how we build technology, and these precedents will affect how designers and developers behave in the years ahead, when the technological interventions will enter our physical bodies, and will be much harder to ignore.
Software is the staging ground for the future, affording us the time and space to get our ethics right, before the stakes are raised.
Because, the way these biological interventions will happen is that there will be some guy who starts a company, and he will have a small design team, and they will make certain choices, and decisions around things like default settings, and they will build their product, and release it into the world, and early adopters will adopt it, and then ordinary folks will try it too, and soon thereafter the physical bodies of millions of people will forever be augmented by the flippant choices made on a Tuesday afternoon in a little sunny room in Palo Alto.
Then technology really will be a drug. Let's just hope that those designers get their ethics right.