Monday, June 16, 2014
To Monetize or Not To Monetize—Reader Responses Requested
One of the more prominent concerns in engineering ethics is the improper influence of money. It's impossible to do engineering of any magnitude without money being involved somehow, because doing work for pay is what engineering is mostly about. Without meaning to, G. K. Chesterton provided one of the best and most succinct definitions of engineering I've ever come across: "the application of physical science to practical commerce." And commerce involves money, so money changes hands in most engineering work.
It's how money changes hands, and who knows about it, that can lead one into an ethical quagmire. Two items in the IEEE's Code of Ethics address this problem. In its code, the IEEE charges its members "to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest whenever possible, and to disclose them to affected parties when they do exist" and "to reject bribery in all its forms." Getting paid for engineering work is not a problem. But if an engineer gives the impression of doing something on an objective basis—selecting competing bids for an engineering project based on technical criteria, for instance—but in fact has been secretly influenced to favor one party over others by means of money or its value equivalent paid by that party, then you have a conflict of interest, at least, and possibly a case of bribery. And while engineers of all stripes should be careful about such things, one who writes a blog on engineering ethics must be especially cautious.
Preserving not only objectivity, but the appearance of objectivity, is the main reason that since I began this blog about eight years ago, I have kept it as non-commercial as possible. It is brought to you by Google, a notably profit-making enterprise, but I pay them nothing and they pay me nothing, unless you count the value of the technical facilities they provide me to enter the blog text into their system every week. In exchange, of course, they hope that my blog encourages people to use their search engine, and I suppose in that way I'm responsible for a vanishingly small fraction of Google's profit. But other than that very tenuous exchange, I get no monetary or economic benefit from writing this blog. In fact, on occasion Google has come in for its share of criticism in this space, and nobody has ever pulled my plug that I'm aware of.
I am now considering an experiment in what is called "monetizing." Basically, I would tell Google that it's okay to put some amount of advertising on my blog. Some aspects of this would be under my control, I think, although I haven't pursued it far enough to know for sure. I do know that if I want to stop it after a while, I can do that, so if it doesn't work out or isn't worth the annoyance, I can always go back to being non-monetized.
Before I take this step, I am checking with you, my readers, as to your thoughts and opinions on the question of whether I should try monetizing this blog. I am under no illusions that I am addressing a vast multitude. The last time I checked, there were a few dozen people who follow this blog regularly, and more who find it via search engines and so on for one-time views on certain topics. But whether you've been following it for years or just came across it today, I am grateful for your attention, which is so valuable in this media-overload era, and do not wish to do anything that would turn off or disappoint numbers of you.
So I am asking for your input. I promise not to do anything about monetizing at least through the end of June. In turn, if you have any opinion about this—favorable or unfavorable—please let me know in the next week or so. If you wish to make your thoughts public, use the comment space below this blog (rather unfortunately labeled "NO COMMENTS" until somebody clicks on it and makes the first one—maybe I can fix that too, and I'd get more comments). Or if you'd prefer to send me a private response, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. While this blog is not a democracy and I don't promise to do whatever the majority says, I will certainly take every response into consideration in deciding whether or not to proceed with this experiment. And if the response is primarily negative, it's unlikely I will try it. I don't need money that badly, and if monetizing would turn off a lot of readers, it's a bad idea.
If I do proceed with it, I will do my best to preserve the objectivity which I hope has been a characteristic of this blog so far. I came across a useful philosophical distinction the other day between two types of objectivity: psychological and rational objectivity. Psychological objectivity is the state of being neutral on a topic, of having no strong opinion one way or another. Typically, we can be psychologically objective only about things we know little about, or haven't thought about deeply. On the other hand, rational objectivity is the ability to distinguish between good and bad arguments on a topic, and to believe a thing for reasons that are genuinely good ones. Rational objectivity has been my goal in this blog from the start, and I plan to keep it that way even if I receive some money from advertisements that I may not be psychologically objective about. For that matter, I'm not psychologically objective about engineering ethics itself: I care deeply about it, and I'm biased in favor of it. But that doesn't prevent me, I hope, from being rationally objective about it and judging various arguments on their logical and evidential merits, rather than just going with my feelings about a question.
If you respond, I'm not asking you to be psychologically objective. Rationally objective would be nice, but I won't insist on that either. Unless it makes no difference to you, consider letting me know your opinion on monetizing this blog by June 30. After that I'll summarize the responses and announce the next step: to monetize or not to monetize?
Sources: In a discussion of American character in Generally Speaking (London: Methuen, 1928, p. 63), G. K. Chesterton said that Americans favored action over contemplation and excelled in the application of physical science to practical commerce. The distinction between psychological and rational objectivity is made in J. P. Moreland and W. L. Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downer's Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 150. The IEEE Code of Ethics can be found at http://www.ieee.org/about/corporate/governance/p7-8.html.