Adapting to Digital Environments: Evolutionary Ethics and the Challenge of Privacy
Accepted for Information Ethics Roundtable 2012
Hunter College, CUNY
New York, NY
April 27–28, 2012
ABSTRACT In addressing questions of information privacy in the twenty-first century, many theorists and policymakers have turned to the pre-digital era to examine legal, political, and philosophical foundations of privacy, generally speaking. This paper considers even more distant foundations of information privacy from the perspective of evolutionary ethics. Recent work in evolutionary psychology presents the following puzzle: many believe that natural selected favored altruism in the course of human evolution, yet our ancestors’ environment is so different from our own that any altruistic instincts we have inherited may provide a poor foundation for ethical behavior in the present. The case is doubtless more complicated in digital environments, which are even more remote than the merely physical ones of our ancestors. In this paper, I examine the continuities and discontinuities between the early adaptive environment (25,000–75,000 years ago) and current digital environments as they relate to personal information and social interaction. This analysis centers on the presence and size of communities in each type of environment, the roles of social monitoring and punishment, practices and expectations of reciprocity, the presence of egalitarianism, and so-called behavioral contagion. With this empirical framework in place, I then assess the prospects for privacy in present and future digital environments. In particular, I contrast the case of social networks (which in many ways mirror small groups in the early adaptive environment), with large-scale data warehouses (which represent a considerable departure from that environment). This analysis highlights special areas of ethical concern in which human instincts alone (however optimistically assessed) are unlikely to produce ethical behavior. I conclude by reflecting on the challenges for our species as we enter these new, digital environments.