A while back I wrote about an increasing feeling of worry I have with the way in which many disruptive digital start ups seem to take a fairly dismissive attitude to the established norms of society. Whilst that’s on the one hand somewhat obvious (how can you be disruptive if you’re not challenging the status quo), I’m not convinced that a bunch of Silicon Valley kids should be the ones drawing boundaries about what’s right and wrong.

I reopened this debate last week with (as is the way with the Twitters) a complete stranger in New York.

Georgia asked a really interesting question:

As the Internet has forced change in many areas already, what makes ethics exempt from possible modification also?

It strikes me that there are two sides to this: first of all does the Internet change the nature of how ethics are generated, and secondly does the impact of the Internet change our actual ethics?

Now of course there is one massive underlying assumption here – that everything is going much quick than it did before. It’s undoubtedly the contrarian in me, but I think that’s a questionable assumption, both in terms of pace of change but also maybe in the sense that massive fast change is anything new – for example the introduction of the electric telegraph in the 1800s made global financial markets possible, and change the speed of transmission of data across the Atlantic from weeks to seconds, “overnight”.

But if we run with it, let’s start with the second bit first. Undoubtedly the Internet will change our ethics. In the same way that the printing press, broadcasting and every other major communications revolution did and continue to. Free dissemination of information makes for a (differently/better/less – take your pick) informed population, and our ethics are an output of our society.

But will the pace of ethical generation change with the Internet? I’m not so sure. Uber is the logical conclusion of a process of ethical debate and evolution that goes back to Adam Smith, if not before. Ethics are a manifestation of culture, and I’m of the view that cultural change is at best glacial. Ethical issues that have been subject to debate may be spotlit by innovations on the Internet, but that’s not the same as being generated by all things digital.

In fact, in many ways, that probably answers my first questions about ethical codes for start ups. Actually we don’t have start ups pushing at things that are completely counter-cultural because, ultimately, they need to develop a customer base and if they’re that far from the prevailing culture they simply won’t manage it.

* apologies for the poor pun which won’t make any sense to anyone outside of the UK…

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