Toward an ethics of influence


This event is now in the past and can be seen in its entirety here.

Stop now and go to, where @TristanHarris, the guy on the left above, has produced and gathered much wisdom about a subject most of us think little about and all of us cannot value more: our time.

Both of us will be co-investing some time tomorrow afternoon at the @BerkmanCenter, talking about Tristan’s work and visiting the question he raises above with guidance from S.J. Klein.

(Shortlink for the event: And a caution: it’s a small room.)

So, to help us get started, here’s a quick story, and a context in the dimension of time…

Many years ago a reporter told me a certain corporate marketing chief “abuses the principle of instrumentality.”

Totally knocked me out. I mean, nobody in marketing talked much about “influencers” then. Instead it was “contacts.” This reporter was one of those. And he was exposing something icky about the way influence works in journalism.

At different times in my life I have both spun as a marketer and been spun as a reporter. So hearing that word — instrumentality — put the influence business in perspective and knocked it down a notch on the moral scale. I had to admit there was a principle at work: you had to be a tool if you were using somebody as as one.

Look back through The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, and you’ll see what I mean. Nobody was better than Ole’ Steve at using journalists. (Example: Walt Mossberg.) And nobody was better at exposing the difference between sausage and shit than Dan Lyons, who wrote that blog as Fake Steve. (Right: you didn’t want to see either being made. Beyond that the metaphor fails.)

Anyway, visiting the influence thing is a good idea right now because of this:


And this:


I call it a bubble and blame data. But that’s just to get the conversation started.

See (some of) you there.

(For a more positive spin, see this this bonus link and look for “We are all authors of each other.”)



5 responses to “Toward an ethics of influence”

  1. >> Many years ago a reporter told me a certain corporate marketing chief “abuses the principle of instrumentality.”

    I think I sort of understand what the “principle of instrumentality” is from reading the rest of this post but… I’ve never heard of that term before and Google isn’t helping (other than a rather obscure and opaque “definition” relating to Aristotle).

    Can you elaborate?

    1. It has hardly been published before. (Here’s one time, by me.) It’s about using others as instruments. Or, as I said, here, tools.

  2. Herman Kahn once wrote, “There’s nothing wrong with killing a million people; what’s wrong is doing it without thinking.”

    I’m not sure you can claim to have ethics without an attempt to influence: isn’t the Kantian view based on a willingness to generalize to all?

    I think issues of “tools” and ” instrumentality” are of less import as agents per se, and of more import as agents of particular cases of ethics. In other words, influence is a given–but to what end?

    1. To be human is to be influenced by others, and to influence as well. Can’t be helped. Think of parenting. Or being a team member.

      It’s when we bullshit each other that we run into trouble. Or when a politician manipulates a mob. Or … well, the list goes on. The main thing currently is that marketing is in a bit of a bubble. The CMO — Chief Marketing Officer — is also the Chief Data Wrangler now, and in the business of “influencing” indirectly through spying on us and then aiming messages at us, the more personal the better. I know that’s happening with PR now, though I don’t think they’re doing a very good job. Never did, actually.

  3. Time at for me was well spent. I showed it was by tweeting the talk. What I would like is for Twitter to recognise if others agreed with my assessment. That is, for Twitter to tell me that it was useful to others by measuring how many others thought it was useful. I would like to see a measure of other people’s tweets that I receive to show if their latest tweet is likely to be worth reading. We get an estimate by reputation of a tweeter but I need more help. I need this on all other messages that I receive including emails and phone calls.

    On a related topic I am currently designing a distributed ledger (database) application. To build a distributed ledger we need to convince ledger owners to include their ledgers. The value of a distributed ledger is often for the user of the ledger; not the owner. We are designing the system so users can ask ledger owners not in the ledger to join. We are making it easy for ledger owners to respond provided they join the ledger. This is an example of timewellspent by users as it does not benefit them so much as those who come after.

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