Tag Archives: ethics

on The Smartest Guys in the Room

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room [Motion picture]. (2005).

This film nicely wrapped up what was a very complicated story. As the scandal took place, uncovering the important pieces of the narrative was difficult because they were competing with everything else in the daily news information deluge. Letting a few years pass and waiting for the dust to settle makes stepping back and taking the 10,000 foot view easier.

When Enron was originally in the news I didn’t have any sense of the great impact that company shareholders suffered, and I didn’t understand what a celebrated and ‘accomplished’ company it had been shortly before the scandal broke out. Being a high school student in 2001, I wasn’t as tuned in as I would be if something like this happened now, so I appreciate the deep-dive explanation of what really happened.

I am proud that investigative reporting was one of the catalysts for uncovering the story. At a time when many people think the media is suffering, news is biased, and technology has rendered newspapers and magazines obsolete – this scandal was ultimately uncovered because a lone reporter asked a few tough questions. A lone female reporter at that, who not was not only dealing with a very ‘macho’ culture at Enron, but also didn’t have very much career experience before breaking the story.

Energy is a form of technology, and that’s what Enron sold – but this didn’t feel like a story about technology. The company’s trouble mostly came from accounting practices, limiting the supply of their product and creating false demand to raise prices. This could happen with any industry that serves a basic need to the population – auto makers, communication services, airline industries, etc.

It raises the question (although it was seemingly answered for energy long ago) at what point does a technology, or a technology market, become regulable? There are probably actual definitions of this, but I’ve never thought about it before. Energy became regulable a long time ago, and now the internet is approaching that same threshold – but does it meet the same criteria?

How would this story be different if Enron were a broadband provider? I don’t know if they would have been held to the same ethical standards, since unlike energy, broadband hasn’t yet been defined as critical to the functioning of everyday life in American society.

The film presents the notion that Enron only attempted these unethical actions because they believed they were ‘smarter’ than the regulators, and that being smarter gave them permission to break the rules. Is this any different from the idea that ‘code is law,’ and whatever code someone is smart enough to come up with gives the coder permission to circumvent legality?

on my Ethical Radar

‘A man got to have a code.’ – Omar

As I wrote in a previous post, I just began a class in ethics and technology. During lecture last week, I couldn’t help but remembering the quote from Omar in The Wire on how everyone should have a code, or sense of morals – even if they don’t adhere to societal norms.

One of the ideas I’ve been most interested in, after two sessions with the class, is the concept of ‘discussion stoppers,’ and how they can be categorically expected to occur and also why they should be avoided.

I’ve never really enjoyed arguing for the sake of it. Many people get pleasure from the competition of proving their own righteousness or intelligence through ethical battles, and those people always turned me away from the activity. I prefer finding common ground in conversation, rather than exploring differences of opinion. In class, I’m finding out that to treat a subject which is ethically ambiguous requires a more concentrated effort than I’m predisposed to give.

‘Everyone has their own opinion, so there’s no point in trying to come up with a solution. It’s impossible.’ — this is a common perspective and one that I frequently give in to when a discussion becomes difficult. The textbook I’m reading suggests that it is incorrect to claim ethical progress can’t be made on account of the improbability of consensus. The fact that everyone can’t agree doesn’t mean that the discussion itself is useless, or doesn’t lead to minor advancements in understanding.

In the course of any typical week, I consume all kinds of news which touches on ethics. So, as part of the class, I’m starting to give more consideration to each scenario and what the ethical implications are, what claims were made to reach conclusions, and whether the claims appear to be sound.

Hitting my ‘ethical radar’ recently were several issues:

A police officer distracted by a laptop struck a man with his car, killing him, and the officer was acquitted because he was answering a ‘work-related’ email: Since when are emails or any other internet-based activity considered real-time communications of such a timely nature that drivers should be excused for killing a cyclist because they needed to respond to a laptop? The base claim here – that answering an email while driving was more important than a human life – seems unequivocally wrong.

Adderall and other ‘neuroenhancers’ being used in top colleges: Is it ok for students to do this? Why is it different from athletes being issued suspensions for using drugs? Those are the questions hinted at in this New Yorker article, which is more descriptive of the phenomenon than suggestive of any ethical standard. It does make more transparent the norms which predetermined the subject’s choices – such as legal decisions categorizing Adderall and other amphetamines as prescription-only drugs.

The Death of Adulthood: A lengthy and fascinating article in the NY Times by film critic A.O. Scott. The premise is that American literary culture has always been youthful & rebellious, but until now those sentiments had purpose against some specific enemy or authority. Scott claims that post-millennial culture has done away with adulthood, but without the ethical backbone of its predecessors.

Ray Rice and the video taping incident: Aside from the obvious conclusion that Rice’s actions were inexcusable, this story raised several questions about the ethics of surveillance. Was it ethical for the video owners to keep it private for so long after the incident? Does a person who makes a surveillance video have some kind of rights over it, or should they be obligated to immediately make it public? Since they are filming a public place, shouldn’t the video be ‘public,’ and viewable by anyone who is interested in that space? Why are videos filmed for surveillance kept more private than the places that they are filming?

on Opening Doors

One afternoon last week, S. made some scrumptious turkey burgers for me to scarf down before heading out to my first night class of the Fall semester. I was recently accepted to, and enrolled in a Technology Management program at Georgetown University. My first class is called ‘Technology & Ethics.’ 

Occasionally in our apartment, the sound of neighbor’s doors opening and closing slides in to our kitchen, or a gust of wind rattles the window. Otherwise, it’s fairly quiet.  We were entirely surprised when halfway through the meal, we heard our front door open. Not just the kind of brief shake that happens if wind clatters through, but a full-on human powered door opening. 

Generally our door is locked, but in the hectic few moments between coming home from work and leaving for school, I must have forgotten to secure it. 

From the angle I was sitting, I was able to turn and see an arm on the handle retreating backwards, seemingly repelled by our shouting and confusion when we noticed the uninvited entry. I grabbed the stool I was sitting on and prepared to use it as a weapon, but quickly dropped it so that I could dart and catch a glimpse of whoever tried to come in.

I stepped into the hallway, not sure what I would find – and a giant stood there. At least six feet and nine inches tall, probably two hundred and fifty pounds, an athletic man looked at me apologetically and said simply “I live in the same apartment upstairs. Must have gotten off the elevator on the wrong floor.”  

I thought I had seen him in the building before. But that didn’t quell my sense of intrusion. Maybe it’s the dozens of emails I’ve received since opening a new account with Georgetown U., informing me of campus burglaries. Maybe it’s the articles about police violence I’ve been reading. I was feeling edgy. 

Despite the confused guy’s sincere apology, my logical mind kept clicking. I asked him his name, making sure to get it clearly so that I could check his residence with the concierge. I called down and learned, yes, he is absolutely a resident – and I noted an unconcealed sense of loyalty. The concierge seemed perturbed at having to give out any information about the man at all. Clearly his privacy was paramount. 

Google didn’t agree. After a quick search, the internet proceeded to give me much more information about the guy than M. the desk man was willing to. 

As it turns out, the accidental intruder shares with two other former players the NBA record for having suited up for the most teams in a single career. Over the course of 15 years, the towering guy standing confused at my front door had played for nineteen professional basketball teams, crisscrossing the country and the globe. 

The timing of this peculiar event feels oddly relevant. I’m getting ready to embark on my first course in a graduate program, and quitting a job that has been my home for over two and a half years. So, my mind is aflame with reflection on just about everything. This incident naturally kindled all kinds of quirky associations. 

Some of the heaviest material my ‘technology & ethics’ class will approach is privacy in the connected age. So, I began to wonder: Whose privacy suffered more in this incident? I ended up learning much more about my neighbor than he did about me – as far as I know, my name is still a secret to him, but I now have a list of 20 cities he’s lived in, how many rebounds he averaged, where he opened a restaurant, what foods his mom used to cook for him… all this and he was the one who physically opened my door.

Aside from that meta-question, the narrative of this guy’s career struck me as meaningful. This happened the day before I resigned from my second job in five years. I’m still fairly new in my career, and have room to jump around a bit – but does one ever get to a point where staying put is necessary? I was asking myself this before I even met the paradigm of team-hopping. His critics haven’t been kind to his irregular resume.

Finally… What was I going to do with a kitchen stool when facing down a 250 pound NBA center? In the moment, it feels like a metaphor for all the challenges I’ve just set up for myself. A new job, a new school. All these new responsibilities and obstacles, and I’m just armed with a laptop, optimism… and a kitchen stool. 

‘It’s all connected,’ as they say.


The ‘Capote’ film and ‘In Cold Blood’

I was interested to watch the film after finishing the book, and my interest was definitely rewarded.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s ‘Best Actor’ Oscar was well deserved.  One of the first statements the Capote character makes in the film, after arriving in Kansas, is “I don’t care if they catch the killers or not.”  In a room full of the KBI investigators, this comment doesn’t go over particularly well.  For students wondering about objectivity, however, the character makes his point clear:  he is going to be a non-discriminatory observer.  At least until the killers are caught, and he develops a fascination with Perry Smith. 

The inclusion of Harper Lee in the film was unexpected.  As I read the book, I had no idea Capote was traveling with another author who helped him out periodically with community relations and research.  I had heard before they were friends, but wasn’t aware to what extent.  This omission pointed something out to me about the way Capote didn’t include himself, or Lee, in the book.  Until the end anyway, when I got the impression that Capote fabricated a character, who he just called “a reporter,” that was actually himself.  When Hickock talks to a reporter shortly before he is executed, the book leaves out what the film makes clear: the reporter was the author himself. 

In the film, Capote goes to great lengths to keep the convicts alive, so that he can squeeze as much of the story out of them as possible before they are departed.  His hiring of an expensive lawyer to continue their appeals is left out of the book, but a crucial element of the film.  I’m not sure if that story arc is fact, or a false inclusion by Hollywood.  His ethics are further questionable when he bribes the warden to gain uninterrupted access to the prisoners.  So, to make up for these ethical lapses, the film version of Truman suffers from horrible guilt nearing the end of the story, worried sick that his hired lawyers will actually acquit the defendants and the murderers will go free. 

Oddly, Capote’s injection of himself in the proceedings parallels the argument of the murderer’s appeals – that the jury in their trial was not objective, having been acquaintances of the Clutter family.  Was the verdict reached by the jury biased, because of their personal connections to the case?  Likewise, was Capote’s book fallible because of his influence on the events, omitted from the final copy?  In any event, both the book and the movie were highly enjoyable.