Here’s What Happened When Reid Hoffman and Other Tech Bigwigs Went to the Vatican to Talk Morality

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Ask Internet entrepreneur and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Reid Hoffman how he decides which companies to invest in, and he’ll tell you he has a simple litmus test to determine whether to give the idea a closer look.

“I want to invest in companies that play to one or more of the seven deadly sins,” Hoffman said. For those a bit rusty, those sins would be: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.

Hoffman, best known as co-founder of LinkedIn, says the business-professional networking-platform most embodies the deadly sin of greed. “In the end, LinkedIn is helping someone earn more money next year.”

Hoffman’s remarks came at The Common Good in the Digital Age conference, held in a Jesuit curia meeting venue on a narrow side street of Vatican City. The crowd was peppered with Catholic clergy, including a handful of bishops and at least one cardinal. Hoffman’s quips earned plenty of hearty laughs.

“This is a problem we have with the idea of being moral in a business designed to be profitable, and reach billions of people by indulging human nature,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman was joined by executives from Facebook, Western Digital, Mozilla, Accenture, plus top-flight academics and authors, and at least one Nobel Prize winner. Participants are promised an audience with Pope Francis before the three-day conference wraps up on Saturday.

The goal of the event, according to Cardinal Peter Turkson, who opened Thursday’s session, is to discuss ways to make the digital world more moral, and to be a bigger contributor to the common good in society.

“It is said that technology makes the world smaller,” said Turkson, one of the authors of the 2015 Papal Encylical on climate change and protecting the planet, Laudato Sí. “I would like it to be the case that it doesn’t just make us neighbors, but also brothers and sisters.”

Facebook’s moral dilemma

But the global nature of modern technology makes that an enormous challenge, noted Bishop Paul Tighe from the Pontifical Council for Culture, one of the event’s organizers.

“Our definition of ‘moral’ dates back to when we all lived in largely homogeneous societies with shared values and traditions,” Tighe said. “Now, the challenge is to come up with shared moral values in the largest and most diverse community possible.”

But all too often, a moral code is no match for the power of Internet time. Case in point: what happened this spring half a world away from Silicon Valley. The city of Christchurch, New Zealand was rocked by two consecutive terror shootings at two separate mosques. One of the shootings was streamed live on Facebook. The attacks killed 51 people.

Gavin Corn, director of cybersecurity for Facebook (Corn said he came to the Vatican conference in a personal capacity, not as a representative of Facebook), discussed Facebook’s response to the video, and how it came up short.

“The video streamed for 17 minutes,” he said. “We were informed by police after seven minutes. And ten minutes later it was gone, and the IP address was blocked. When we took it down, the video had been viewed fewer than 200 times.”

But that wasn’t the end of it: Corn said Facebook embarked on a desperate digital chase to remove the video completely from the platform. The clip had already been downloaded onto some profiles, for example, where it was also blocked. Over the span of hours, users created around 900 different versions of the video—they edited it, or added screenshots, or manipulated it in different ways, all to make it more difficult for the company’s algorithms to find it.

“Within the first 24 hours, we blocked 1.5 million versions of the video,” Corn said. “Of those, 1.2 million were blocked when the video was being uploaded.” But the video went viral anyway, he said. It was even hosted on news sites; it became unstoppable.”

“In this case, there wasn’t a moral question,” Corn said. “Everyone agreed the video shouldn’t be shown. But the moral course was extremely difficult to take because it was impossible to move quickly enough. You can’t just be moral today. You have to be moral and very, very fast.”

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