Rethinking Technology, Revitalising Ethics: Overcoming Barriers to Ethical Design

Patrick Feng


Listening to the media today, one gets the sense that the “information revolution” is a fait accompli: computers have revolutionized our world whether we like it or not, privacy is being eroded by the creation of global databases, and the future holds even more surprises about what technology will do to us. The message seems to be that information technologies produce inevitable and uncontrollable effects for society. Thus, for example, a recent issue of Forbes suggests that there is “lively debate as to whether surveillance technology will bring on Orwell’s 1984, …or constitute a giant step toward human freedom. Either way, the damned thing is practically here. Let the chips fall where they may.”

This kind of technological fatalism — the belief that society is no longer in control of technology — has important implications for those interested in computer ethics. For if technology is out of our control, what is the point of discussing ethics? The question would seem to be moot since we are powerless to shape technology anyway. This viewpoint, then, is a barrier to the inclusion of ethics in the design of information systems. I argue that this barrier creates two major obstacles to meaningful dialogue between ethicists and those who design information technologies: one has to do with how computer professionals view technology, and the other has to do with how they view themselves.

In the first case, technology is viewed by much of the public as an “autonomous force” beyond our control. Accordingly, ethical discussions are dismissed as being impractical or even irrelevant. The quote from Forbes is typical: by speaking about surveillance technology as if it were inevitable, the article forecloses debate on the ethics of this technology. In this paper I examine how other privacy-invasive technologies have been characterized in this same way, and suggest that this characterization limits people’s choices in terms of the development of technology.

A closely related belief is that technology is “intrinsically” good, and hence ethics is besides the point. After all, if technology is predisposed to do good, any attempt to control technology by, say, defining what an ethical system is, could be interpreted as “interference” in the natural logic and evolution of technology. Debates about the moral and political nature of the Internet are instructive: early on, the Internet was seen by many as being “inherently” democratic, implying that if people only ensured the growth of the Net, they would see the growth of democracy as well. Efforts to regulate the Net were thus interpreted as efforts to suppress democracy. In retrospect, we can see that this view was too simplistic, and I would argue that the presupposition of “Internet democracy” stifled efforts to talk about ethics in this new medium.

Taken together, these views constrain computer professionals’ understanding of what ethical computing means. If, for example, a computer scientist sees technology as intrinsically good, then it follows that society will benefit so long as the technology is built correctly. The realm of ethics is thus reduced to, say, writing technically competent programs, while questions of which programs to write or how these will affect society fall by the wayside. This narrow view of ethics has been well-documented by scholars in Science & Technology Studies, and I draw upon this literature in an attempt to find ways to overcome this barrier.

Ethics is not just about doing the job right; it’s also about doing the right job. In order to have a discussion on this level, however, we must first overcome the barriers of technological determinism and the artificial separation between professional and social responsibility. The goal of my paper, therefore, is two-fold: (1) to illustrate how certain views of technology obstruct meaningful ethical discussions; and (2) to suggest how these obstructions might be overcome by providing alternative views of technology. Rather than accept technology as fixed and inevitable, I propose we view it as malleable and contingent. Looking at technology in this way opens up the possibility that ethics can and should play an important role in the shaping and design of information systems.