#ethics21 Week 4, Codes

I have been skimming a lot of issues and codes by now. But there is a specific harm that I have not found mentioned anywhere, nor a more general principle where it might belong: Proliferating popups, alerts and ‘notifications’.

Certainly, AI can contribute to their abusive spawning. And when we oppose the tracking by advertising companies, isn’t it mainly the danger of additional popups that we really fear?

On one hand, they might be seen as merely a nuisance. But on the other hand, we are all aware today that attention is a scarce good in the ‘attention economy’, and obtrusive interruptions and distractions cause real harm to our cognitive performance. And in a learning context, inappropriate distractions can be a a big factor for failure!

So, shouldn’t people’s attention budget be considered a value, and its protection an ethical principle? In the ethical codes, there are noble general principles such as “must not unreasonably curtail people’s real or perceived liberty” or even values such as “human dignity” that may seem violated by forced alerts and notifications. But the loose treatment is so pervasive here that the ‘offenders’ probably don’t feel addressed by the higher level codes.

In particular, the idea of a ‘notification’ gets stretched in ever more abusive ways. Of course there are events where I do want to get informed by a ‘push’ information, by a ‘bring’ rather than a ‘fetch’ information about that event. Usually, if another user interacted with me or my resources. E.g. when someone comments on a blog (which Blogspot doesn’t seem to email me any more), or when I get a “friend request” (which may still be spammy, but at least I can report such abuse). But when the platform itself makes yet another ‘friend suggestion‘, this is not a ‘notification’ any more, but at best, it’s ‘news’.

For fine-granular distinctions like these, the awareness of wrongs is apparently not yet sufficiently pronounced — perhaps because it is not explicitly addressed in the codes. I searched for terms like ‘intrusive’ in the codes but they only referred to the peeking of private infos, not to pushing infos.

But if the inflation of ignorable ‘alerts’ continues to grow, the danger gets bigger that one day we ignore a rare crucial warning, with real harm to health and life.

Varous notifications symbols such as bells and vibrating mobiles, in different colors.
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