From Computer Ethics to the Ethics of Global ICT Society

Krystyna Górniak-Kocikowska


Ten years ago, at the first ETHICOMP conference in Leicester, UK, I presented a paper The Computer Revolution and the Problem of Global Ethics. I argued then that the computer revolution has a global character, and that the Computer Ethics has to be therefore a global ethics.

I am happy that I was not wrong then. But what about now? Where are we, and where are we headed? Looking back to the future I would like to take a closer look at some of the many issues related to the ethics of the new, global society, a society we today usually call the ICT Society.

Firstly, I would like to focus on the significance of the changes in the names given to the technology we called, among others, computer technology,digital technology,information technology, and information and communication technology. This evolution reflects also the changes in the perception of a computer: from “number cruncher” to universal tool whose most prominent feature is its “logical malleability” (James Moor); from a purely mathematical machine to the tool of real-time verbal and visual global communication.

This, often confusing l’embarras des richesses of names documents quite well the evolution of social perception of computer-based technology. Moreover, it reflects the confusion we all experience to some degree when trying to understand the world we live in. It seems that there is little doubt that “our era” is the era of that particular technology; but what are the main characteristics of the technology itself? There seems to be some disagreement here, and again it is reflected in the names: the “computer era,” the “digital era,” the “IT era,” the “ICT era” to mention just a few most popular. And we name “our” society accordingly; if we live in a “computer era” we live in a “computer-based society,” if ours is the “ICT era” we are members of the “ICT society,” and so on.

Interestingly enough, the terms describing core characteristics of our leading technology become progressively more inclusive. It seems that the more we are aware of how many areas of our lives are affected, or even controlled, by this technology, the more general, more inclusive its name. In addition, one takes it now almost for granted that ICT (I will use this name from now on) is global. Therefore, the society of the ICT era can be called the Global ICT Society.

Secondly, I would like to share some thoughts on the ethics of the Global ICT Society.

ICT can be used very effectively in supporting freedom and democracy worldwide. But there is also a high potential in ICT to become an efficient and useful tool for autocracy or even totalitarianism. The technology can serve either to foster the well-being of human kind, and to make it flourish and reach a higher level of development; or it can be used to subdue, enslave, and de-humanize humans physically, intellectually, and emotionally. One of the co-creators of this technology, Norbert Wiener, was acutely aware of this dual potential and power it has. A half century ago he issued warnings about the dark side of the new technology, becoming this way the founder of Information Ethics (Terrell Bynum).

ICT still has this dual potential, and the danger of ICT being used to harm humans is real. I am strongly convinced that one of fundamental tasks of Computer Ethics/ICT Ethics is to be a watch dog, guarding the global society from becoming a society of slaves to the few who using ICT can pull the strings of power to their own exclusive advantage.

In this respect the earlier mentioned evolution of the technology name is a hopeful sign. Bringing the “communication” component to the name of the technology that defines our times can strengthen the elements of democracy and freedom in the structures of the Global ICT Society; provided, of course, that the communication factor will be taken seriously. I will elaborate on this issue in my paper.

Thirdly, I intend to address another aspect of the Global ICT Society that I consider to be of crucial importance from the ethical point of view. Looking back to the future I would like to look with special attention at the role of knowledge in the Global ICT Society.

It is obvious that knowledge becomes rapidly one of the most precious commodities. Already the economy of the new global society is called by some (e.g., Paul Romer) “knowledge economy” or “knowledge based economy.” There is no doubt about the importance of ICT in the production, transfer, and storage of knowledge. There is, however, an important difference between “knowledge economy” and knowledge society. I intend to examine the meaning and the significance of this difference. Then, I would like to present some thoughts I have about the difference between Global ICT Society as knowledge society, and Global ICT Society as a society based on knowledge economy. This will allow me to address selected ethical issues pertinent to each of these two models of society. These issues include privacy, freedom, intellectual property, equity, and social justice.

The conclusion of the paper will be devoted to the question: What kind of Global ICT Society knowledge society or knowledge economy society should we promote, if the primary ethical concern were to be “the human use of human beings” the way Norbert Wiener saw it?