Ethical Challenges to Citizens of “the Automatic Age”

Terrell Ward Bynum


In the 1940s and early 1950s, MIT Professor Norbert Wiener perceptively foresaw the enormous social and ethical implications of information technology. “The choice between good and evil is knocking at our door”, he said. Remarkably, Wiener also foresaw many of today’s most pressing issues in ICT Ethics, even some of those typically associated with the Internet! The present paper begins with a brief summary of Wiener’s foundation of ICT Ethics as a university research subject. The primary focus of the paper, however, is Wiener’s challenge to society to develop answers to those questions and thereby make life secure and fulfilling to citizens in the coming “automatic age” (as he called the coming information era).

The Information Society Context — Wiener was keen to ask questions about “what we do and how we should react to the new world that confronts us.” (p. 12)*. He developed strategies for analyzing, understanding, and dealing with social and ethical issues that could threaten human values like life, health, happiness, security, knowledge and creativity. For example, Wiener described communications within a society as “the cement which binds its fabric together” (p. 27), and he noted the crucial importance of open communications in a democracy, where “blocks to communication among individuals and classes are not too great” and freedom is thereby strengthened. He pointed out that, in fascist and despotic societies, communication among individuals and groups is severely restricted and censored, and freedom is thereby diminished.

Even today, in this era of “global information ethics”, the concepts and procedures that Wiener developed in the 1950s can be used to identify, analyze and resolve social and ethical problems associated with ICT of all kinds. What are the major social and ethical problems that will arise? Who should tackle these problems, and how should they proceed? What tools and procedures are available to society to come to terms with these issues? The first part of this paper deals with these issues.

Individuals in the Information Society

To live a good life, as Wiener saw it, is to realize “the great human values which man possesses” through creative and flexible adaptation to the environment, made possible by sophisticated learning, reasoning and thinking. But one person’s achievements will differ from those of others, because humans have different levels of talent and potential. It is possible, therefore, to lead a good human life in a variety of ways – as a statesman, scholar, scientist, musician, artist, tradesman, farmer, and so on.

To enable human beings to reach their full potential and to live a good life, according to Wiener, society must uphold three “great principles of justice” and minimize the state’s interference in human freedom. Using Wiener’s own definitions of “the principles of justice” produces the following (pp. 105-106):

The Principle of Freedom – Justice requires “the liberty of each human being to develop in his freedom the full measure of the human possibilities embodied in him”.

The Principle of Equality – Justice requires “the equality by which what is just for A and B remains just when the positions of A and B are interchanged”.

The Principle of Benevolence – Justice requires “a good will between man and man that knows no limits short of those of humanity itself”.

Like Aristotle before him, Wiener viewed humans as fundamentally social beings that can reach their full potential only by active participation in a community. Society, therefore, is indispensable for a good human life. Society, however, also can be oppressive and despotic in ways that limit or even stifle individual freedom; so Wiener added a fourth principle, which could appropriately be called “The Principle of Minimum Infringement of Freedom” (Wiener himself did not give it a name.):

The Principle of Minimum Infringement of Freedom – “What compulsion the very existence of the community and the state may demand must be exercised in such a way as to produce no unnecessary infringement of freedom”. (p.106)

Given Wiener’s account of the purpose of a human life – to realize one’s full human potential in variety and possibility of action – it is not surprising that the Principle of Freedom is first on his list. And since, for Wiener, the purpose of a human life is the same for everyone, the Principle of Equality follows nicely from his account of human nature. The third principle of justice expresses Wiener’s belief that human freedom is best served when people sympathetically and helpfully look out for the wellbeing of all.

Wiener’s principles of justice have significant implications for ICT ethics that are familiar to us today — privacy, security, censorship, damage to human rights. He had much to say on many of these topics, including for example questions of ethics in the workplace.

Workers and Managers in the Information Society

In the early 1950s, Wiener predicted that the world would soon see the creation of “the automatic factory”, with an “ultra-rapid computing machine” functioning like a “brain” to control the production processes and monitor the quality of the factory’s output. The computer would be hooked up to “artificial sense organs”, like thermometers and gauges, enabling it to keep track of environmental conditions in the factory, as well as the progress of production runs. There would also be hardware “effectors” which would “act on the outer world”, functioning like the arms, legs and tools that human workers would have used on the assembly line. In the “automatic factory”, therefore, computer-driven hardware would replace the muscles and sense organs of human blue-collar workers; while the reasoning and calculating components of the computer would replace “low-level judgments” and actions of white-collar employees such as accountants, clerical workers, and factory librarians. The end result, said Wiener, might be unscrupulous factory owners getting very rich at the expense of laid-off workers and society in general.

To forestall such disastrous consequences, Wiener suggested that union leaders, business managers, and public policy makers should plan ahead and develop ways to deal with these problems before they happen. Wiener himself met with union leaders, business managers and public policy makers to discuss new rules and laws that should be put in place to minimize possible harm from automatic factories. This and other issues of ICT ethics in the work place are discussed in this section of the paper.

All quotations from Wiener are from his book The Human Use of Human Beings, Second Edition Revised, Doubleday Anchor, 1954.