I took part in the @EurVoice Twitter event yesterday, which was a most enjoyable and interesting experience. One question that came up was ‘is eBay a force for good’ and I replied that the answer to that was too complex for 140 characters, but that I would try to blog on it. So here we go.
We’re at a moment of major change at the moment. Our ways of working, communicating, interacting are changing almost on a daily basis. Even in the 6 years since I did the Eisenhower Fellowship, communication technologies have been revolutionised by smartphones and tablets. Traditional media is being disrupted by the ability of people to talk to each other directly. The upshot of this is that there is a lot of focus on tools and platforms, and moral values are ascribed to them.
My position is that these tools and platforms are morally neutral. They are only as good or bad as the people that use them and own them. Twitter may have a lot of people using it to be horrendously sexist and misogynist, but that’s because those people are those things. Twitter is also used by the victims to bring this behaviour into the daylight, rather than hiding in the shadows as it has done for years. This isn’t even about technology. A stick can be used to help an injured person walk, or to bash someone over the head. It’s about the user, not the tool.
This is of course a generalisation – there are some tools that are specifically designed to harm and should be dealt with in that light (guns, say, or spyware). And of course the people that run the tools and platforms have their own obligations – to be open with us about what they do with our information, to make sure that they put rules in place to limit abuses, to respect the laws that apply to normal behaviour on their platforms.
So is eBay a force for good? If used by good people to do good things, of course. Is it inherently a force for good? No. But neither is it inherently a force for bad.