Why Ethics Of Technology Needs Uncertainty The case of a global technology with local impact: RFID

Paul Sollie


Going on the insight of various scientific disciplines, such as economics and environmental studies, I will argue that uncertainty is a concept essential and central to many contemporary debates, like that of technology development in general and radio-frequency identification technology (hereafter RFID) in particular. However, within the field of moral philosophy the concept of uncertainty has not received any substantial attention; rather, it is a notion scarcely explored and scrutinised. In this paper I will argue for (1) the necessity of ethics to reflect upon uncertainty. On the one hand this will involve a theoretical analysis, conceptualising uncertainty via a typology formulated in other scientific disciplines. On the other hand, its importance will be exemplified by RFID technologies; a global technology with local impact involving many issues of uncertainty.

I will then show that (2) this scrutiny offers interesting insights for the debate on ethics of technology. Uncertainty is paramount, particularly in the field of technology development (more than in other fields of applied ethics) and its proactive, ex-ante ethical assessment. Based on the analysis of uncertainty and the case of RFID, I will conclude with identifying problems for an ethics of technology and then try and offer a preliminary sketch for any future ethics of technology.

First, uncertainty within the field of technology development will be discussed. Uncertainty within technology development relates to the characteristics of complex, generic technology development, which include among other things the many agents involved, intransparant R&D trajectories, and indeterminacy regarding use and impact. These features pertain to the uncertainty surrounding technology development, which makes an ethics of technology stand out as ethically special compared to other more straightforward, linear, unequivocal and well-calculable cases in ethics, like Philippa Foot’s famous ‘trolley case’.

Next, because a systematic reflection on uncertainty is lacking in ethics of technology, I will discuss and introduce a typology of uncertainty that differentiates between its nature (the class of uncertainty; epistemological, ontological, moral), its levels (how uncertain is x on a continuum from indeterminate to determinate), and its sources or locations (where does uncertainty arrive from: context, model, data, etc). I will argue that in using this typology and introducing it into the field of technology development we might arrive at a clearer picture of exactly what is uncertain in a specific development and how it is uncertain and where it originates. These different dimensions will prove to add to discussion on formulating a methodology for morally evaluating complex technology development.

To exemplify this, I will discuss RFID technology, which is a widely trumpeted, new area of technology that allows for tracking-and-tracing and monitoring of both artefacts and beings. RFID is used to track-and-trace stocks in warehouses, to monitor wandering elderly with dementia, to read out passport data, etc. Much of the debate on RFID focuses on its ethical aspects, predominantly privacy. However, RFID also signifies a new species of technology that, as I will show, has impact on the debates of an ethics of technology under uncertainty. I will argue that RFID is a technology that stands apart from other technologies by identifying two trends. The first trend refers to ubiquitous computing, i.e. technology receding to the background of our lives. The second trend is that RFID signifies a global technology empowering society over individuals. It distinctively gives power to global and large-scale agents (governments, big corporations) that has local impact on individuals. I will focus on one aspect namely the uncertainty surrounding RFID and argue that, using the typology introduced, it has many dimensions that impact on its ethical assessment and ethics of technology at large.

What the abstract analysis of technology development and the example of RFID point at is that generic technology development is fraught with uncertainty. The uncertainty surrounding technology development has impact on its ethical assessment by moral philosophy. Any attempt to provide an account of an ethics of technology might seem daunting given the fact of uncertainty (due to the long and complex chain of developments, the many agents involved, and value pluralism). However, I will argue, that this criticism applies to substantial (traditional) theories, which are in need of information in order to be able to evaluate technology development. Any future ex-ante, pro-active ethics of technology should therefore be procedural of nature, not substantive. This is the direction I am convinced an ethics of technology should advance, because substantial accounts will inevitably prove to be insufficient to guide the assessment for complex and uncertain developments.