Engaging the Students of Technology in an Ethical Discourse in the Information Age: Thoughts of Wiener and Gandhi

Manju Dhariwal, Ramesh C. Pradhan and Raghubir Sharan


With Introna, let us consider the possibility and ‘The (im)possibility of ethics in the information age’. He poses the problem as: ‘Ethics is not easy anymore – may be it never was. It seems as if the ethical resources available to the ordinary person are rapidly becoming fragmented, distributed and ambiguous. For one, the traditional sources of moral knowledge such as religion, the state and the family are becoming increasingly elusive as the nature and legitimacy of these institutions are being challenged and transformed… I am merely indicating that the question of right and wrong, of how one ought to live, has, for sometime now, become less and less obvious’ (Introna, 2002). This thought persists even in the limited case when a teacher attempts to engage the students of technology in an accreditation mandated course in ethics. The problem becomes even more severe in a culturally unique country like India.

This problem of loss of meaning in an ethical discourse is not new. It happened to ancient Indian king Ashoka after his victory in the Kalinga war. It is illuminating to notice that the ethical disillusionment of Ashoka appeared at the end of a decisive, though gory, victory at Kalinga in which thousands were killed. The remorse at the emptiness of the victory led Ashoka to deep contemplation. The action that followed is well known in history. It led to adoption and spread of Buddhism over a major part of the world over many centuries. On a lesser scale similar ethical disillusionment visited Norbert Wiener, a well known American intellectual considered to be one of the founding fathers of computer-ethics (Bynum,2008), after the end of the World War II. Wiener had amply contributed to technology that led to decisive defeat of the Axis forces in World War II. Be that as it may, at the end of the World War II, Wiener was thoroughly disillusioned with the unethical behaviour of the war administration. He rebelled against the American State as is obvious from the perusal of a letter “A scientist rebels!” written to the Atlantic monthly (Wiener, 1947). In this letter, Wiener mentions his refusal to communicate one of his work to an engineer from Boeing working on guided missiles and ‘not to publish any future work … which may do damage at the hands of irresponsible militarists’. For this refusal he was hounded by State and in this mood he wrote the book “The Human uses of Human Beings” (Wiener, 1950, 1954). Wiener’s mental disillusionment, but still clinging to some rays of hope, can be surmised by going through the following quotation from the 1954 edition.

Let us remember that the automatic machine…is the precise economic equivalent of slave labour…. However, there is nothing in the industrial tradition which forbids an industrialist to make a sure and quick profit, and to get out before the crash touches him personally…

Thus the new industrial revolution is a two–edged sword. It may be used for the benefit of humanity, but only if humanity survives long enough to enter a period in which such a benefit is possible. It may also be used to destroy humanity, and if it is not used intelligently it can go very far in that direction. There are, however, hopeful signs on the horizon… I have been delighted to see that awareness on the part of a great many of those present of the social dangers of our new technology and the social obligations of those responsible for management to see that the new modalities are used for the benefit of man.. the routes of good will are there, and I don’t feel as thoroughly pessimistic as I did at the time of publication of the first edition of this book” (Wiener, 1954, p 162). (Boldface introduced by the authors)

This hope was expressed in 1954. Events of the following five decades including the ethical behaviour of the industrial and financial elite of the developed world (which has ushered the information age) have not vindicated the hope expressed by Wiener rather these have reinforced the apprehension expressed earlier that ‘there is nothing in the industrial tradition… before the crash touches him personally’

As an aside we mention that in the middle of 1950s Wiener had visited the Indian Statistical Institute at Kolkata (earlier Calcutta) and stayed there for some time. During this period he came across the writings of Mahatma Gandhi. To the best of our knowledge, Wiener has not written anything about this experience. But let us construct, as a mental exercise, the way Wiener after becoming familiar with the thoughts of Gandhi (see Parel, 1997) would have engaged the students of technology in an ethical discourse in the information age. Though difficult, we have attempted this exercise using the ethical codes of IEEE and ACM as pegs. The results will be elaborated in the paper to be presented. The outline of the paper is as follows.

Initially, the basic differences between the world view of Wiener and Gandhi are noted. These differences arise because their upbringing and background were different. Wiener was brought up in a developed country and was engaged in advancing the frontiers of science and technology. He had amply succeeded in this task and had occupied a commanding position. Gandhi was born in India. He was a lawyer by profession who was primarily engaged in a struggle against oppression of downtrodden by a colonial power. Struggle against oppression has been waged several times in history. But the uniqueness of the method of Mahatma Gandhi lies in its reliance on development of moral force by the oppressed themselves and use of only non-violent methods of protest (satyagraha). The aim was to change the heart of the oppressor with love. This method succeeded in obtaining political freedom for India (from British rule) in 1947. But the irony is that by the time Wiener came to India in the middle 1950s, the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi had already substantially weakened in India itself. The emphasis had shifted from development of moral force to development of material progress. The genius of Wiener would have noticed this irony and commented on this. What would have been this commentary? An attempt has been made to construct this. This material can be used to engage the students of technology in an ethical discourse so that they can handle the forward, backward and sideways uses of ICT.


1. Bynum Terrel Ward ,(2008) Computer and Information Ethics , The Stanford Encyclopaedia of philosophy/winter 2008 Edition, Edward Zelta(ed)

2. Lucas D. Introna, (2002), ‘The (im)possibility of ethics in the information age’. Information and Organization 12 , 71-84, Pergamaon Press, Elsevier Science

3. Norbert Wiener (1947), ‘A scientist rebels!’ The Atlantic Monthly, Jan 1947, Vol.179, p.46. USA.

4. Norbert Wiener (1950,1954), “The Human uses of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society.” , Da Capo Press, Boston,USA

5. Anthony J. Parel (Ed)(1997,2007) ‘Gandhi: Hind Swaraj and other writings’ Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, India.