Subsumption Ethics Redux: as ICT Moves Forwards, Backwards and Sideways

David H. Gleason


I. Introduction

“Subsumption Ethics” was first published at CEPE 11 years ago and much has changed in ICT since then. In particular, the pace of communication has increased while the friction on information transfer has decreased. Web 2.0 and 3.0 functionality is now mainstream, and many users share their most personal information with impunity, from, “bored at home, going to do laundry,” to “I know I shouldn’t have slept with….” This rapid, and often vapid exchange of information calls for a new look at the ethics of current “subsumed objects,” and whether the basic principles of Subsumption Ethics are still applicable.

Many positive steps forward have been made in the last decade, for example, on-line data integration has improved dramatically; grassroots organizing is facilitating the democratic process; many more people have access to good medical information, etc. Some backwards developments include quiet, closed-door compromises with high-stakes information like electronic health records, electronic voting and on-line banking. Some sideways changes include movement from local data centers to on-line servers; massive, inexpensive, redundant storage; and integration of handheld devices into the Web.

After a brief review of the concept of Subsumption Ethics (SE), this paper will provide a series of subsumption in current ICT examples, covering such issues as social networking (Web 2.0); virtual machines, on-line applications and software as a service (Web 3.0); and Internet time.

The paper will show the benefits of applying SE principles to these examples. Finally, it will present a series of specific recommendations to help improve the ethical outcomes of ICT activities.

II. Subsumption Ethics

“Subsumption ethics” is the process by which decisions become incorporated into the operation of information and communications technology (ICT) systems, and subsequently forgotten.

ICT systems, by nature, repeat operations over and over. If those operations have unethical impacts, the system will nevertheless continue to execute them anyway. Unlike a human operator, there is no point in the cycle where the machine pauses to ask, “Should I do this?”

Subsumption in general is the process of building larger components from smaller ones. In ICT systems, small components, like the code that reads data from disk drives, are developed and tested, and once they are working reliably they are subsumed into larger systems that present file lists. Thus we stand on the shoulders of giants.

The larger systems, in turn, are subsumed into still larger systems. Once components, subsystems and applications are operating, the subsumed processes become invisible and unavailable to the user, what Dartmouth Professor James Moor calls the “invisibility factor” – components (and the human impacts of their operation) are forgotten, requiring no further attention unless they fail. These components are called “Subsumed Objects”. Technological systems are built from such objects until they are enormous.

As Aristotle pointed out, virtuous decisions require informed balance between many factors. Developers and users must actively seek understanding of many issues, on continua from stakeholder analysis to technical limitations. In order to apply the right knowledge to the right problem, an informed, deliberate decision-making methodology is required.

Furthermore, ethical decisions need to be made as situations arise and a simple, universal statement of ethics is not possible. The ethics of each situation must be worked out according to specific circumstances, in relation to guiding principles.

III. What’s New – Examples

A. Social networking (Web 2.0)

  • Subsumption without thinking – twittering about taking out the trash
  • Electronic grassroots organizing – on-line services like Democracy In Action
  • Privacy and digital images
  • Acceptable use policies, e-mail retention policy and legal discovery; the difficulty of deleting

B. Virtual machines, server management and portability

  • System configuration files
  • Life cycle management
  • Can mitigate the risks of poor decisions by making them easier to undo

C. On-line applications and software as a service (Web 3.0),

  • Switching to Microsoft Office 2007,
  • Automatic installation of affinity software (e.g. installing the Yahoo toolbar during a routine update).
  • The value of time when machines don’t work correctly

D. Internet time

  • Instant replication of a stolen credit card list, propagation of the news of Michael Jackson’s death, a car bomb in Chechnya, and the 24-hour news cycle.
  • Hive mind and the acceleration of “The Social Construction of Cyberspace”

E. New examples of subsumption ethics

  • Why computers slow down as they subsume more and more material – from updates to malware
  • The Citicorp tower case
  • Tattoos, brands and trademarks

IV. SE Applications and Potential Benefits

  • Saving money and time
  • Open source software
  • “Happy customers feeling safe and secure”
  • Avoiding litigation
  • Quality improvements

V. Recommendations

Support and contribute actively to on-line user groups. Comment on software improvement opportunities, publicly critique errors in systems and judgment. Foster discussion on abuses of ICT power by governments, corporations and individuals, from invasion of privacy to anti-trust activity to malicious hacking.

Teach the concept of SE at the college and graduate levels; help professionals to understand how their decisions become embedded into systems. Demonstrate the cost-benefit of thinking ahead to systems developers.

All this demands a great deal of ethicists, who must embrace web 2.0 functionality, including blogs, social networking sites, grass-roots organizing systems and interactive, multimedia publication in order to move the industry forwards and not backwards in its service to humanity.