UK views of ethical and spiritual implications of IT

Harold Thimbleby, Penny Duquenoy and Nicholas Beale


The UK Worshipful Company of Information Technologists has organised two high-level colloquia to debate ethical issues of IT.The colloquia were hosted in the British House of Lords and the first colloquium was held February 10, the second October 15 1997. This paper summarises the debates of those colloquia.


This abstract paper submitted to Ethicomp has several limitations! The deadline for abstracts to Ethicomp means we cannot yet report on the second colloquium! The full paper will integrate the two debates into a single report. We will not simply report the two colloquia separately, but will present a single coherent paper summarising the substantive points raised at both.

As a matter of style, this submission is in anonymised reported speech (see background notes, below). After the second colloquium, the two reports will be substantially rewritten and reorganised.

Debate Summary

“What has God wrought?” asked Samuel Morse after he had sent his first telegraphic message. A question that has been asked many times over with each advance in information technology and answered in many different ways. Some regard technology as a gift of God, others are fearful and sceptical.

One theme that informed the first discussion was the question of the quality of electronic communication. Several speakers pointed out that historically communication has taken place face-to-face with all of the visual clues as to meaning.

In contrast the electronic medium was anonymous. It provided access to huge amounts of information, but made it difficult for people to communicate effectively because they lacked a common experience. There was a great gulf between transmitting information and communicating information. “It is easy to forget there are people out there.” One speaker warned that the new technical bias towards seeing the world in objective terms might lead to “repetitive soul strain”. “Any conversation about communication must include some reflection on the meaning of life.”

Huge areas of life essential to some people were utterly cut off from others. “More and more people are having uncommonly held experience in diverse and protected cells than in previous generations,” commented one speaker. Some thought that the anonymity and diversity of the Internet was healthy in that it subverted totalitarianism of all kinds.

Others argued that the denial of body was something new. “Pornography is comparatively trivial compared with the questions of sovereignty and democracy raised by the Internet”. Would the technology further the unity of the world, or merely confirm the dominance of an elite?

All were agreed that technological change is occurring very fast. “We are rushing towards a vacuum,” complained one father, struggling to keep up with his children’s knowledge of the Internet, and worried that no one was supervising their electronic adventures. Others decried the tendency of electronic media to create a domination of the momentary. The question of how to control the Internet was raised by many of those who spoke. “The speed of technological change is greater than the speed of institutional change , especially in government. The effect is not only that government now moves legislatively five years behind reality, what is worse we have too little time to devise the right legislative responses to new technology,” declared an eminent IT entrepreneur. There was no need to hurry observed another, it was sensible to let the law evolve at a slower pace.

Some argued that while governments might control the flow of ideas to their populations by banning books, they could not stop people reading material on the Internet’s web sites and bulletin boards. “There is no way that the law can keep pace with technological change. All we can expect of the law is some high level principles. We have got to generate a culture that respects the use of personal information. The law can only be a back stop.”

However, with sex sites among the five most popular UK web sites, many were convinced that regulation was necessary. One speaker even claimed that information providers would welcome a definition so that they could push the barriers. Others were concerned that the Internet bestowed great power and huge profit, creating divisions between the information rich and the information poor. But there remained the question of how to enforce laws and detect law breakers.

The Church of England’s role in guiding attitudes to new technology and its efforts to communicate via the new medium also came under discussion. The Church was closely involved with the invention of printing. Indeed, the spread of Luther’s Protestant teachings was aided by the use of printing press. However, some were concerned that it had yet to fully embrace the latest technology. “The Church dominated printing because it could read, now we are in a situation in which the Church can’t read,” said one theologian.

However, many were convinced that the Church could provide deep analysis of the moral and ethical questions raised by the Internet and were investigating the possibility of a charter to guide Christian use of the technology.

The Government was also urged to examine the impact of technology on society. One speaker called for a cross-party Commission to spend a year examining the sort of issues raised at the Colloquium. “There is a moral duty for government to look at these problems.”

“Where do we go from here?” the Chairman concluded.

Further comments

A web site has been maintained that is collecting further comments. In this abstract, we include a small selection of them.

Focus in Government
There are many groups of people questioning what the ethical and/or regulatory environment for the information society should be but no one focus for the debate. Should there be one? If so where should it lie? Within Government interest is split between the Home Office (Obscenity, Privacy, Data Protection); Cabinet Office (Freedom of Information, DTI (IT for all etc.); and DfEE (National curriculum, use of IT in schools). There is no one select committee looking at this. As part of our thinking about Government proposals for changing Data Protection Legislation we have considered whether the time has come to focus information issues in one area, giving a Minister with the lead interest and an ‘Information Committee’; an alternative would be to look at the opportunities which might arise were the opposition’s proposal for a Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament to look at human rights be taken forward, considering the right to privacy; to free flow of information and to freedom of expression which are crucial to the search for a proper balance in this area.

Open Access
We talked about levels of literacy, but not access to the equivalent of books. The same arguments apply. The bible chained to the lectern for all to come to read is replaced by the terminal, still available only to a few. Who provides the hardware? Who decides what content should be accessed? Libraries are beginning to make access to the ‘net’ a real opportunity for all, though some are charging. Is this a community facility that schools and churches should provide? Only when there is universal access is there at least a chance for the majority to become literate. Nowhere in our debate did we have time to recall the recent survey which said only 19% of the population know how to obtain Internet access – our view of the world is perhaps skewed.

Teaching Ethical Systems Engineering
Discussion focused on the Internet but if systems designers build ethical solutions to meet business requirements we will go a long way to meeting ethical requirements (see our paper on Privacy Enhancing Technologies). Focusing on the undergraduates who will build tomorrow’s systems must be one way forward (all undergraduate courses have to cover something called ‘the engineer in society’, or ‘ethical computing’ or something similar, to get BCS accreditation. We are working to ensure more coverage of Data protection issues).

Constant work contact
One of the indirect ill effects of the revolution in technology has been a strong deterioration of family life and one’s personal quality of life. I have travelled extensively, and would say, without reservation, that there is no place in the West where people have the obsession with their jobs that they do in the United States. Many today are virtually owned by their employers. Those “non-productive” enough to actually take the two weeks’ holiday allowed each year (and which the employer will “reassure” you that you are not obligated to take) are still “virtually connected” to the office. The pager, e-mail remote access, voice mail, etc., have grown to mean that breaks which do not include contacting the office are unknown. Where technology has greatly reduced the time for task completion in many instances, most of us have a longer working day than in the past. The “home office” has led to people working well into the night, even after they leave the office itself. Many employers will not even allow their staff to take the few federal holidays that mean only one day away from the office. Since those paid for 35-40 hours of work each week are working 50-60 or more, employers are eliminating staff. Everyone fears “downsizing”, unemployment, and being without medical insurance (or the means to pay for it privately) if out of work.

Invasion of privacy
Privacy is not the most significant issue (or the best way of depicting the issues that lie behind “privacy” concerns), the ways that the Internet in particular and IT in general are used for surveillance (in the unprejudicial sense of the gathering of personal data) are of vital importance. IT-based surveillance raises major questions, ranging from power to personal identity, that have tremendous ethical import. Management decisions (commercial and government) are increasingly based on simulations of the real world, and these in turn depend upon data acquired from persons about their attitudes, lifestyles, practices, affiliations and so on. These issues affect many IT applications, from policing and government databases to direct (including Internet) marketing.

Economic promises
The Internet is supposed to have all sorts of economic benefits and to open access to all. Our society relies on ‘retiring’ people over a particular age, though this is already causing economic problems because those paying tax are not paying enough to support the ‘unproductive’ people in society. If the Internet does open access and is economically productive, then these ‘unproductive’ people are going to partake of economic production in as big a way as is promised for the Internet. Therefore many of our politico-economic assumptions are going to be severely tested.

Background notes

The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists
Established 1987, the Company is the one hundredth livery company. WCIT is dedicated to improving awareness and understanding of the benefits of Information Technology and achieving the highest standards in the application of IT, especially within the City of London. Its aims are directed towards educational and charitable activities.

Chatham House Rules
The colloquia were held under Chatham House rules. This is standard practice to allow free speech and honest debate. The debate may be freely reported, but no part attributed to particular contributors. Although some subsequent discussion on the Web has been attributed, as editors of this paper we have taken the liberty of uniformly anonymising all contributions – for the same reason, and for fair treatment. We take responsibility for our editorial presentation.