All we’d like to say about IT and its consequences for our lives

Noemi Manders-Huits, Paul Sollie


The development of information and communication technologies enables the expanding of our social and political lives/activities to a global level, e.g. one of tremendous networks such as Hyves and Second Life. These are Internet services to respectively maintain and create online friendships and to live a second, virtual life in a three dimensional online digital world, imagined, created and owned by its residents. The development of these online networks exceeds prior (natural) boundaries and enables global interaction on a large scale. The shifting of spatiotemporal relations also takes place at a more local or national level, for example in the case of e-democracy, where social and political activities are facilitated on the Internet and other information technology services.

In this paper we investigate whether there are tools or methodologies for evaluating or judging the development of these technologies from an ethical perspective. One of the most promising and upcoming methodologies for this is Value Sensitive Design (hereafter VSD). This approach envisages building human values into design throughout the design process. In the nineties VSD emerged, employing an integrative and iterative tripartite methodology, consisting of conceptual, empirical, and technical enquiries. Its central thesis holds that human values and ethical considerations do not stand apart from technology, but are fundamentally part of our technological practices. Technology, and not the least information and communication technologies, has had a rising impact on society. Technology may either support or undermine human values. For instance, information available on the Internet increases access to and use of information for many people, but it also might bring about infringements of privacy or the dissemination of incorrect and false information.

Implicitly, VSD seems to support the idea that what is the morally right thing to do from a normative perspective can be derived from public values. Consequently, VSD runs the risk of committing the naturalistic fallacy by reducing an ‘ought’ to an ‘is’. We will argue that what is lacking in VSD is a normative point of view for evaluating values and outcomes of social scientific research. A fundamental reflection is lacking within VSD upon the normative, ethical status of its approach. As a result, human values and ethical considerations can only be recognized and described in technological practices but cannot be criticized, let alone be shaped using VSD.

We will describe two examples of societal and political developments enabled through emerging and new information technologies, namely (1) Hyves/Second Life, and (2) e-democracy. With respect to the first we question what the consequences of these technologies are for the development of moral identities of contemporary individuals, e.g. whether a person’s online identity or behaviour can be coherently related to one’s offline or local identity and accountability. Moreover, we will attend to the question whether or not these new technologies can or should be regulated and on basis of what arguments. Next, we will address e-democracy, which entails the use of electronic communications and information technologies such as Internet and WiFi for enhancing democratic processes. We describe a number of possible applications of e-democracy, where we identify the normative implications of designing these applications in a certain way. We will argue that the design of e-democracy tools in particular and technology development in general is not neutral, but involves many decisions that have moral import. What becomes clear is that there are ethical considerations needed for judging and justifying decision-making in the design process.

Finally, we argue that although Value Sensitive Design is a useful approach for thinking about ethics and technology, it needs complementary ethical theory for evaluating technologies and justifying ethical requirements and constraints of their design and application, in order to be a useful methodology for ethics of technology. Normative considerations are required for judging technological development from an ethical perspective in order to prevent committing the naturalistic fallacy or running the risk of remaining merely descriptive. Following from our examples, it is clear that there is a lot to say in a normative sense about technological developments and their consequences for human lives. Therefore we need to focus on the next step in the development of VSD as a useful methodology for ethics of technology, namely the development of an ethical framework for this field.