About this blog

  • Thinking Ethics was a project launched in Geneva to foster the debate about ethics. A few friends, fed up with only reading about abuses in the media, decided to hold a forward-looking seminar on five subjects: ethics and performance, ethics and knowledge, ethics and consciousness, ethics and disobedience and ethics in real time. If moral has to do with right and wrong, then ethics is its application in society. We believe that people need to talk about the subject to determine the level of ethics they want. The book Thinking Ethics, a result of the seminar, is to start the discussion. This blog is a contribution to the conversation.


  • Andrea Spencer-Cooke
  • Pascal Marmier
  • Kelly Richdale
  • Stephen Whittle
  • Steve Bowbrick
  • Beth Krasna

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February 23, 2005




Two thoughts on your interesting post:
a) Firstly, it is surely not 'paradoxical' that a place or system without laws and official governance has standards: it is entirely to be expected that the need for some form of regulation (in the widest sense) demands standards

b) More importantly, your point about translation is very challenging. If I do get what you are saying correctly, however, I am not entirely sure that 'translation' is the right word. To explain: compliance is like adhering to good grammar. The geek wants to parse the parts of speech correctly. However, diversity comes with a little flexibility - disobedience, perhaps pace another post here - and so a language like English has standards that are enormously flexible: we can understand Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Eminem, despite widely different grammar (a compliance issue) and vocabulary.

I think translation is not quite the issue because when I translate I turn one text into another. When I hear new English, say Eminem, I am adding something new to my understanding. The former requires two separate compliant standards (English and French grammars, say), whilst the latter acknowledges one essential grammar that is adaptive with seemingly endless scope for invention and diversity.

In so verbose a fashion I am suggesting that you are looking at something normative and heuristic rather than legalistically proscriptive: standards that develop according to need and don't require 'fixing' as 'standard 0.1', '0.1.2', etc. On the spectrum that runs from norms, through guidelines and standards, to rules and laws, this would move us back towards norms, and away from the geek-heaven that is often law. The only term that seems to fit for me is 'adaptive' - and adaptivity is the mother of diversity.

Steve Bowbrick

Thanks for an excellent comment. Of course, in my entry, I'm being a bit hyperbolic. My audience (apart from the whole world) is particularly the almost entirely non-techie participants in the ethics seminar itself so it's awkward choosing a line! Anyway, the motivation for the post was simple: I'm generally uncomfortable with orthodoxy of any kind and the big orthodoxy amongst the geeks is obviously standards (closely followed by openness). I'd like to see both terms challenged fairly robustly - although, as a living, breathing citizen of the net, I'm a major advocate of both - depends on my audience, I suppose.

I like your alternative to translation. I guess my thinking is that the geek solution to the multiple, incompatible protocols problem would be lots of clever protocol translation at network boundaries. My suspicion is that, if we invested more in such clever translation (adaptation, cohabitation, whatever) we'd be better off and better adapted to diversity and non-comformity.

And, of course, this standards orthodoxy is pretty influential, not just amongst the geeks. Look at the single currency. In my mind just another reductive attempt to collapse diverse, non-compliant forms into a big, unadaptive, inflexible unity (although that doesn't make it any less handy in the supermarket). I seem to be the only person on the planet who thinks we actually need *more* currencies, not less (don't tell me, there's actually a club for people like me, right?)



Thanks for the reply. I know where you're coming from on single
currencies and this ossifying tendency to standardise.

In the ethical context, I'm reminded of an evening in the Mezzanine
some colleagues and I spent with the former Bishop of Edinburgh,
Richard Holloway a few years back. Holloway spoke of how he felt that
we were getting beyond Thomas Kuhne's paradigms and now needed
'ethical jazz' to deal with the variety of ideas and issues that are
thrown up by modern life.

Perhaps it is indeed 'jazz' that provides a better metaphor: the
ability to switch rhythms, go with a riff and somehow orchestrate on
the hoof. Funnily enough some geeks do get this. There is something in
the hacker ethic (as described by Pekka Himanen) that can respond to
the unorthodox; I suspect it needs presenting in the right way.

Of course, 'how' is another matter. Here's where people who are geeks
manqué slot in (and I suspect we both might fit into this category):
mediators between the geeks and the rest of society; you might even
say translators... ;-)

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My suspicion is that, if we invested more in such clever translation (adaptation, cohabitation, whatever) we'd be better off and better adapted to diversity and non-comformity.

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