Technology must be transparent in order to be knowable. Technology must be knowable in order for us to be able to consent to it in good faith. Good faith informed consent is necessary to preserving our (digital) autonomy.
Let’s now look at this in reverse, considering first why informed consent is necessary to our digital autonomy.
Let’s take the concept of our digital autonomy as being one of the highest goods. It is necessary to preserve and respect the value of each individual, and the collectives we choose to form. It is a right to which we are entitled by our very nature, and a prerequisite for building the lives we want, that fulfill us. This is something that we have generally agreed on as important or even sacred. Our autonomy, in whatever form it takes, in whatever part of our life it governs, is necessary and must be protected.
One of the things we must do in order to accomplish this is to build a practice and culture of consent. Giving consent — saying yes — is not enough. This consent must come from a place of understand to that which one is consenting. “Informed consent is consenting to the unknowable.”(1)
Looking at sexual consent as a parallel, even when we have a partner who discloses their sexual history and activities, we cannot know whether they are being truthful and complete. Let’s even say they are and that we can trust this, there is a limit to how much even they know about their body, health, and experience. They might not know the extent of their other partners’ experience. They might be carrying HPV without symptoms; we rarely test for herpes.
Arguably, we have more potential to definitely know what is occurring when it comes to technological consent. Technology can be broken apart. We can share and examine code, schematics, and design documentation. Certainly, lots of information is being hidden from us — a lot of code is proprietary, technical documentation unavailable, and the skills to process these things is treated as special, arcane, and even magical. Tracing the resource pipelines for the minerals and metals essential to building circuit boards is not possible for the average person. Knowing the labor practices of each step of this process, and understanding what those imply for individuals, societies, and the environments they exist in seems improbable at best.
Even though true informed consent might not be possible, it is an ideal towards which we must strive. We must work with what we have, and we must be provided as much as possible.
A periodic conversation that arises in the consideration of technology rights is whether companies should build backdoors into technology for the purpose of government exploitation. A backdoor is a hidden vulnerability in a piece of technology that, when used, would afford someone else access to your device or work or cloud storage or whatever. As long as the source code that powers computing technology is proprietary and opaque, we cannot truly know whether backdoors exist and how secure we are in our digital spaces and even our own computers, phones, and other mobile devices.
We must commit wholly to transparency and openness in order to create the possibility of as-informed-as-possible consent in order to protect our digital autonomy. We cannot exist in a vacuum and practical autonomy relies on networks of truth in order to provide the opportunity for the ideal of informed consent. These networks of truth are created through the open availability and sharing of information, relating to how and why technology works the way it does.
(1) Heintzman, Kit. 2020.