(Image courtesy Shutterstock)
(Image courtesy Shutterstock)

When we talk about ethics and computing, we usually emphasize individuals and their rights–for example the right to privacy, the right to security, intellectual property, and so on. These are very important issues and require continued attention. They are necessary to protect the fundamental dignity, integrity and autonomy of the human person. However, to be human is also to exist in a rich web of relationships, not just one-to-one, but organized into increasingly complex social structures, from the family to the nation, and also including a variety of intermediate associations, including community, school, workplace, church, social or athletic club and many other variations. The quality of our lives, individually and together, depends to a large degree on the proper functioning of these institutions and the support they provide, while the institutions in turn depend on our commitment and willingness to invest in them.
Technology, especially computer and communications technology, has become so pervasive and powerful that we cannot afford to ignore the way it shapes our communal life. Therefore, in addition to the rights and protections due individuals, we need to look seriously at issues of justice and other civic virtues.
The advice of Deep Throat, the mysterious source in the Watergate investigation was to “follow the money.” In this case it is more instructive to follow the power. Technology empowers those who can gain control of it. Most often it is the ones who already have wealth, power and knowledge who commission the technology, oversee its design and define its purpose, using it for their own interests, exacerbating further the inequities and divisions that already exist in society.
One can find many examples of this:
–In the workplace, automation can be used to eliminate many jobs and place the remaining workers under tighter control, in the interest of efficiency and greater productivity for the business and its owners. Meanwhile workers are put out of work or reduced to doing boring and stressful work driven by the machine. This is not inevitable, but is the result of purposeful choice in the way technology is implemented. The human-centered and participatory design movements have shown that when systems are developed for and with workers, they can enhance workers’ abilities, helping them to use their judgment, experience and creativity to create better products and services and creating more high-value jobs.
–Social media and other supposedly neutral online media can influence users’ perceptions, emotion and desires by the way they filter and present content, thus allowing corporate interests to manipulate users’ judgments and decision-making. A recent article in The New York Times by Richard Thaler, The Power of Nudging for Good and for Bad, discusses one aspect of this issue.
–The increasing differentiation and specialization of content sources and the use of social networks to create narrow special interest groups has led people in many cases to create communities and subcultures online that serve to reinforce their own biases and promote their own self-interests to the exclusion and even the denigration and harassment of other groups, especially those that are more vulnerable. Thus, a technology that can broaden people’s perspective by connecting them to other communities and cultures different from their own instead often serves to increase the inequities and divisions of our troubled society. One disturbing example is the recent cancellation of two panels on harassment in the online gaming community at the South by Southwest music and arts festival because of threats of violence directed at the organizers. After it received extensive criticism, South by Southwest subsequently relented and is now organizing a day-long session on harassment and cyberbullying. But the incident highlights how the Internet has become a breeding ground for many insular subcultures that aggressively attack those whom they see as “alien” in any way, and particularly the subculture bred by graphically violent video games.
–There is the overarching issue of inequality of access to technologies that are the gateway to so many societal benefits.
It is not the technology by itself that creates these problems; though it is not completely neutral. It is the way the technology is shaped and used in a particular social, economic and political environment, and at the same time the way it shapes that environment. Moreover, these issues do not admit of a purely technological solution. Unless we address the larger human context in which the technology operates, the harmful attitudes and behaviors we see at work there will persist. That is why the holistic approach of this Techonomy conference is so important. By looking at technology as part of a larger human ecology, viewed from the perspective of many different disciplines, it can help us understand more deeply both its dangers and its possibilities and find ways to ensure that it is a positive force in society.
Michael McFarland is speaking on the opening session of Techonomy 2015 on Nov. 8, on a panel entitled “Human Values for a Technologized Age.” He is treasurer of the USA Northeast Conference of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and former president of the College of the Holy Cross.