Ethics and Technology: Freedom or Restriction? Individuality or Uniformity?

The ‘Just because we’ll be able to, will we? Should we? Must we?’ discussion revisited in the light of the news that CCTV cameras will be compulsory in English abattoirs soon.  Again, a reminder that technological ethics have more to do with ethics than technology.

But we’ll start with a different topic: one that isn’t as controversial as it used to be …

There was a time when smoking wasn’t just seen as socially acceptable but positively beneficial …

All that healthy smoke filling your lungs, seeping its goodness into your bloodstream was just the boost your body needed.  You’d live years longer if you smoked … and it was SO COOL.

And then that nasty science came along …

As it turned out, smoking was a bit crap really.  It killed you; it killed your kids; it killed everyone around you; in fact, it killed everyone.  It was an environmental disaster.  Smokers died early and, while they were alive, left a daily trail of misery and filth behind them.  As always, those ensnared by the addiction – or just plain selfish (this will come up again later) – couldn’t/wouldn’t see the problem and banged on about ‘personal freedom’ or the right to ‘take decisions about their own bodies’ but those freedoms never seemed to extend to the rights of others not to have to have to suffer a contaminated world not of their own making.  The tide turned: smoking was bad.

But, of course, it didn’t happen overnight – in fact, it’s still an ongoing process.  As the scientific evidence grew and wider public opinion changed, the need to tackle smoking became more pressing, tactics grew in strength but became generally accepted along the way: that’s the interesting bit.

So, slowly at first, smokers were discouraged by advertising campaigns: ‘smoking isn’t cool; in fact it’s pathetic and harmful; don’t do it’.  Then came the advertising and sponsorship bans to make the tobacco industry less visible: sports at first (obviously?), then wholesale.  At the same time, if you wanted to buy a packet of fags, you’d have to have one with a photo of cancerous lungs or tracheotomies to show you where you were heading; other than that, soon the packs themselves were completely plain.  And they’d be massively taxed, of course.  Then cigarettes in shops were hidden behind screens: you had to announce yourself to the world as a foul smoker as the sales assistant rattled keys and drew back the sliding door.  Bans in public places, even private cars, became more and more sweeping – from inside to out.  Soon, it will be illegal to smoke in your own home in case a technical or medical worker has to enter your premises to assist in an emergency.  Eventually, smoking will be illegal and that will be that.

This isn’t the main focus of this piece so that’s enough of that, but there are three important points to note here:

  1. The process towards a more enlightened world is usually incremental in many stages: various stages of increasingly heavy-handed discouragement always come before an outright ban, and
  2. Most of the latter stages look pretty unlikely (even an ‘attack on personal freedom’) in the early stages (to all but a forward-looking few). [Try telling someone smoking on a passenger plane in 1985 that, by 2010, in order to smoke in a pub you’d have to stand in sub-zero temperatures on a fire-escape (and that even that would be illegal by 2020).]
  3. Putting 1 and 2 together, public acceptance of changing policies isn’t always the problem it might appear to be as the balance shifts towards the abstainers.

In other words, we need to be open to new ideas.  So, with that discussion behind us, let’s consider the meat industry

Most vegetarians quickly realise that there are only two or three responses they ever get from a meat-eater on discovering they choose not to eat dead animals (limited variants of):

  1. “I’m nearly vegetarian too, you know”: ‘I only eat fish, chicken, Tesco hot-dogs (and various other things I’ve forgotten about temporarily)’, ‘We get our meat from Jarrods: the pigs are sung to by Tibetan monks as they have their throats cut’, etc. [translation: ‘My conscience hurts and I admit it’]
  2. (a) “You shouldn’t be vegetarian, you know”: ‘It’s not healthy: you need all that fat and hormone’, ‘Vegetarians are wimps’, ‘We evolved to eat meat’, etc. or (b) “You can’t be vegetarian, you know”: ‘Have you never sat on a leather seat?’, ‘What about the rats that fall into the combine harvester?’, etc. [translation: ‘My conscience hurts but I’m not going to admit it’]

But this is all crap: scientifically, socially, biologically, everything.  We don’t hunt for our food any more (not that we ever really did): we farm it in the cruelest of conditions and cook it in designer kitchens.  We let other people risk their lives to catch fish, just as we hand over the unpleasantries of breeding and slaughter to farmers and butchers: we don’t want to have to think about it – it’s upsetting.  The argument that our ancestors ate meat is vacuous.  They also settled disputes through violence and murder and procreation was largely the result of rape.  We don’t need to do any of that any more: we’ve evolved socially and scientifically as well as physically.  There are simple alternatives to meat and a healthy (even healthier) balanced diet is easy without meat.

Furthermore, the meat industry is (one of the things that’s) destroying the planet: it’s unsustainable both numerically and environmentally.  In a few years, it will have become impossible to provide meat for all those who still want it and billions of farting cows will have put global warming off the scale.

These arguments are better made at length many places elsewhere but the conclusion is that there is no logical, scientific, moral or social reason to eat meat.  (Just as there’s no reason to smoke.)

The only argument there is left is that – at the moment, (for most of us) – meat tastes nice: nicer than substitutes and alternatives. [cf. ‘smokers like smoking’]  Read that again if you need to because there’s nothing else.  If you eat meat, it’s because your selfish urges for physical pleasure are stronger than any reasonable moral code.  Fortunately, the number of people to have grasped this simple concept and to have tipped their personal balance back the right way is growing … and will eventually tip the global balance.

So meat-eaters can wrap themselves in whatever defence mechanisms they choose but that’s all there is.  The inescapable logic is that there’s no moral, scientific or environmental argument for eating meat: quite the opposite in fact.  You eat meat because you want to – nothing else.  If you’re OK with that, fine – but don’t try to dress it up as anything else.  (Piss-taking aside, you’re just a selfish c***.)  Maybe it’s not really fair to take out your uncomfortable conscience on those who have dealt with theirs properly but, hey-ho, whatever makes you happy …

But surely, people have the right to be selfish c***s, don’t they?  You’d perhaps instinctively say so but it gets interesting when you again relate it to the smoking issue …

Meat-eating, apart from being cruel and unnecessary (like smoking), is destroying the planet (like smoking) and really has to be stopped (like smoking).  Does this give us the right to do to meat-eaters what we’ve already done to smokers?

It might seem a bit harsh at first but remember our smoking conclusions above …

  1. The process towards a more enlightened world is usually incremental in many stages: various stages of increasingly heavy-handed discouragement always come before an outright ban, and
  2. Most of the latter stages look pretty unlikely (even an ‘attack on personal freedom’) in the early stages (to all but a forward-looking few).
  3. Putting 1 and 2 together, public acceptance of changing policies isn’t always the problem it might appear to be as the balance shifts towards the abstainers.

… and the strength of the case to eliminate meat consumption.  It might not be that daft.

If we were to try to enforce a vegetarian diet on people [no point in ‘mincing’ words], then CCTVs in abattoirs (the original story) gives us a starting point …

At the moment, of course, the intention is just to put an acceptable veneer on the meat industry (a bit like public services do for global capitalism).  But suppose the balance shifted and there really was a move to discourage – then make progressively less appealing … then ban – meat eating altogether.  How might that incremental process proceed?

Well, alongside the advertising bans, massive taxation, restrictions on eating meat in front of impressionable children, etc., an obvious starting thread would be to put the captured abattoir images on packets of meat.  So, if you want to buy a lamb chop, you have to see an image of a lamb being slaughtered on the packet.  (Is that really any worse than cancerous lungs? If you think it is because it’s a poor little animal you’re looking at … but you’re just about to eat it … er … well, think about it!)  The images might put a few people off but we can do so much better …

Let’s throw in a bit of Internet of Things/Big Data technology …

The meat industry is already using RFID/NFC/etc. tagging in the production process.  It isn’t complete yet but it will be … or it can be made to be.  So there’s no reason why the animal couldn’t be tracked all the way through the system; even after it’s dead and in pieces: right up to point-of-sale.  It would vary a bit from case to case (animal to animal, supplier to supplier and retailer to retailer) but this illustrates the general idea:

  1. Cows are tagged and monitored automatically through the IoT (some are already).
  2. Cows are killed (still tagged and monitored).
  3. Cows are sent to wholesale distribution (still tagged and monitored).
  4. Cows are chopped into bits: but each bit is tagged anew so still monitored automatically through the IoT.
  5. Cows may be chopped up further but the re-tagging is repeated as necessary.
  6. Cow bits are put into packs (still tagged and monitored).
  7. Cow packs are sent to supermarkets (for example) (still tagged and monitored).
  8. Cow packs appear on the shelves for sale (still tagged and monitored).
  9. Meat-eaters buy cow packs (still tagged and monitored).

But what does this achieve above and beyond the original idea of having an image of an animal being slaughtered on the packet?

Well, the point is, it wouldn’t just be any old animal: it could be that animal!

Because, when the original CCTV images of that particular animal being killed were taken, they would (as they soon will be under the new legislation) be stored with identification.  But it’s then a simple exercise in data-handling to index each cow and subsequent cow part and cow package against that ID.  At any point, through the IoT, it would be a trivial exercise to retrieve the relevant death video for any animal part or package … including, of course, at point-of-sale.

So, it would be possible, every time a pack of meat was bought, to show the customer the video (video, note: not just some static photo) of that particular animal being killed.  Add in the soundtrack too (even smells, if you like: all very easy) and you’d have the complete package.  ‘Here’s what happened to the little lamb that chop came from.’

The big questions then, of course, would be (as they repeatedly will be with the opportunities provided by new technology) just because someone could watch that particular animal’s death …

  • Should they be allowed to?
  • Should they be made to?

Now, it could be argued that the first option might be seen as the meat industry opening up their processes and providing a gory form of ‘we’ve nothing to hide’ (other than we’re killing animals, of course, and we’d kinda hoped you’d overlook that).  But the second is clearly a deterrent in the same vein as the anti-smoking material.  To a committed meat-eater, such a suggestion will be seen as madness; to a vegetarian, possibly not so crazy.  And remember, if we’ve taken nothing else from this piece, things change.

It’s worth noting, in fact, that variants of this have been played out in ‘candid camera’ joke form before.  The response is interesting.  While a few hardy, macho, sick, call-them-what-you-will individuals seem to think they have some sort of impenetrable image to uphold, the vast majority of people are horrified and won’t buy the product.  Vegetarians scream at the screen in disbelief, ‘What the hell did you think happened then?’ but, no matter; the point is, people generally don’t buy meat if they’re forced to directly face where it came from in a graphic way.  Bearing in mind that just such a lessening of meat purchase and consumption would do us all – and the planet – a massive favour, is it really such a daft idea?

And, of course [deep breath], probably – taken to it’s logical conclusion, being vegetarian isn’t enough: most conscious-stricken (non-vegan) vegetarians know the dairy industry‘s just as bad.  Calves are taken from milk-producing mothers after a few hours, unwanted (non-egg-laying) day-old male chicks are minced or suffocated, etc.  (And the cows are still farting.)

Should a video of a ‘brother’ being ground into food for the laying ‘sister’ have to be watched before each pack of eggs is bought?

This might all seem a bit extreme at the moment but, as we finally accept that the planet can’t support meat production any more, wouldn’t this form of discouragement be a natural step on the way to a formal ban?

Amazingly, in fact, vegetarianism/veganism might be an area where humanity eventually evolves a more sensible/sustainable (less selfish) collective view: it might have to.  (Or it might not.)  But there are plenty of other battlegrounds where technology (and the opportunities it provides) will undoubtedly increase division and moral conflict.

To just what extent will it be acceptable for a/the state to use technology to enforce a collective view on people?  [Like it doesn’t happen already when it suits!]

And this punch-up-to-come, and many like it, could be the end of us long before environmental destruction, nuclear Armageddon or the technological singularity!

About Vic Grout

Professor of Computing Futures at Wrexham Glyndwr University, Wales, UK. View all posts by Vic Grout

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