Ethics & Sustainability
Progress in information and communication technology creates unpredictable ethical problems. One example is electronic patient records that improve medical care but risk the loss of personal integrity. Ever new versions of gadgets and storing data forever create sustainability problems. We create tools to help predict these types of problems when developing new systems.
Ethics is about right and wrong actions. In a sense it is the rules of a society and a prerequisite for a society to function well. Some ethical rules are formalized as laws but most are not. For instance, there are no explicit law that commands us to be fair toward each other but most of the time we still are, and also expect from others to be. This is ethics in action; in other words: morality. Most of the time we have a pretty good gut feeling for what is right and wrong and this shared understanding makes people's behaviors somewhat predictable to others.
However, sometimes it is difficult to know what is the right thing to do. Perhaps it is a completely new situation, perhaps the situation is too complex or perhaps we do not have enough knowledge to make a good decision. Everybody wants to do what they believe is right, so in such situations it is natural to become worried and insecure. The result is that most people trust their emotions to guide them in ethical decision making. What feels right must be right. Right?
ICT Creates Ethical Problems
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can create very serious ethical problems, with unforeseeable consequences. The problems that may arise are difficult to identify since it is difficult to imagine how information can be used. How should we, for instance, think about Electronic Patient Records? On the one hand, these can lead to better medical treatments and help physicians to make better diagnoses. On the other hand, they can lead to someone spreading sensitive information about you to a third party. Both the opportunities and the risks have to be taken in account when deciding how to design a system.
Another serious ethical issue of ICT is sustainability. As we are storing increasing amounts of data and renewing technical artifacts at an increasing rate, the environmental impact of ICT is rapidly becoming a serious problem. It is difficult to estimate exactly how big this impact is and we might already be at a point when we need to start considering about how to reduce it. Do we really need to store all the information that is created on e.g. Facebook?
Discussions about both ethical and sustainability aspects are necessary to integrate in the design and deployment of ICT systems, not only on a societal level but also within organizations. Neglect of these aspects can inhibit and obstruct normal activities, work processes and customer relations, thus affecting organizational outcomes negatively. On the other hand, it is beyond doubt that the prediction of ethical and sustainability issues, and finding solutions for these can facilitate design, implementation and efficient use of ICT. The problem is then how to achieve this. Professionals, just as other people, are often lacking knowledge about what is the right thing to do in concrete situations. We usually know what is an undesired end result but how do we know whether a certain decision, in a specific situation, may lead to it?
Reflection Requires Courage
People know what is right and wrong in general terms so we do not believe that it is of much help to use normative moral theory to create guidelines and rules for how to construct ICT systems. Such rather works the opposite, by creating insecurity about the own ability to reflect. What should be done in a certain situation is much more difficult to know. For this, people need skills and tools to make sense of the available information. The tools should work not only as decision support, but also as documentation for continuous dialogue.
The image: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya.
Professor in Human-Computer Interaction
Researcher, Associate Senior Lecturer