February 24, 2004

In Search Of Ethics

Diego Doval is trying to kickstart a discussion about ethics in computer science, a topic I've been wanting to raise recently, but hadn't found a suitable way in.

There does seem to be some discussion on ethics in computing, but it seems to me that it's seen as just another area of research, rather than something which must be woven into the day-to-day work of computer professionals.

We did touch upon ethics as part of my Computer Science degree at Lancaster, ranging from discussions of copyright and piracy (I remember our lecturer, Ian Sommerville, asking how many of us possessed pirated software, and then how we expected to earn a living...) to questions over the use of computing in missile guidance systems, and the like. The ethical question was one of my considerations when I was being courted by defence contractors after I graduated (being taught Ada made me quite an attractive proposition).

The problem, as Diego also notes, is where to start? How do we frame such a debate? I don't have any of the answers, but I might have some pointers that could help us find the answers.

I think Rich Gold has an excellent approach to getting people thinking along the right lines. His presentations are thought-provoking, insightful and, most importantly, accessible. He doesn't present any answers in When My Father Mows The Lawn Is He A Cyborg? but presents a whole ream of new questions.

Theories such as Albert Borgmann's "device paradigm" could give us a framework to decide whether or not a given technology is beneficial. Whilst this is straying into philosophy of technology, it aims to help us decide if an advance adds to, or detracts from, our quality of life. I'm sure I'd do a better job of describing it had I found the time I need to finish reading Technology And The Good Life, a collection of essays on the subject.

That may be a touch ambitious as an initial way to engage people more widely. Privacy and identity issues look to be a good initial topic. Our privacy and identity are being increasingly challenged and redefined, and awareness of at least the basic issues is widespread. Attitudes seem to range across all possibilities, from those experimenting with recording their entire life to those actively avoiding anything which may give them an identity on the Internet.

Two of my friends avoid anything which would link their name to something on the 'net, so much so that they don't even want their names mentioned on my blog. How then do we, who live our lives so much in the online world, ensure they are included in any debate about such matters? I post all my photos online so that friends can view them, but then so can anyone. I think it's quite cool that if you search for "adrian mcewen" on Google images, you get a picture of my car and one of me; others find that quite alarming. What if the picture was on the company website for a company that I'd left? What if I'd left the company because I campaign for animal rights and the company had been exposed to perform horrific animal testing? What if one of my party guests is cheating on their partner and is caught on camera with their paramour? Should someone be able to force me to remove an image of them if they don't like it? What if they wanted it removed because it showed them attacking someone?

Questions are good. If nothing else, they can help give a sense of our position on the matter, and give pause for thought before rushing headlong into the latest cool idea.

Posted by Adrian at February 24, 2004 10:59 AM | TrackBack

This blog post is on the personal blog of Adrian McEwen. If you want to explore the site a bit further, it might be worth having a look at the most recent entries or look through the archives or categories over on the left.

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