The Rise of the Techno-Ethicists

For a very long time, technology has been an agnostic movement. Let’s go all the way back to the wheel, one of the earliest forms of technology.  The wheel was a great invention, speeding up transportation of people and goods, and promoting the spread of knowledge while also improving ease and efficiency of movement.  But the wheel could also be used to chase down and capture people, transport illegal goods, and more quickly and easily exploit natural resources.  The wheel was a basic and agnostic piece of technology.  The inventor of the wheel perhaps only saw the benefits of the device, but once out in the world, the user determined whether it was good or evil.

Fast forward a few millennia to our age of almost ubiquitous connectivity and mobility.  Social networks and mobile devices are essentially in the same predicament as the wheel – they can be used to bring people together, open up an opportunity, improve education and spread ideas.  On the flip side, these same technologies can also be used to intimidate people, spy on individuals, steal and coerce.

The philosophical debate of technology’s role in good versus evil is not a new one – the difference is that today the pace of innovation and the pervasiveness of technology make the conversation much more crucial than it ever has been in the past.  We are in an era that requires a new way of thinking – a techno-ethics approach to the world, where we pay more attention to the balance of agnosticism and altruism during the innovation process.

The basic principles of techno-ethics could start with a call to action, asking tech industry leaders to consider how their creations and products are ultimately used.

Why?  For two overarching reasons.  The first is a “feel-good” reason – as human beings, we have a responsibility to create and build things that promote and enable the virtues we believe in.  If we believe in personal liberties and freedom of speech, we should be vocal on how products are designed for and used to promote these elements.  Should Facebook protect people from fake news and cyber-bullying?  Yes – this is accomplished by taking responsibility for the technologies the company has developed and deployed to millions of users.  Maybe this is the first fundamental tenet of techno-ethics.

The second possible tenet of techno-ethics is a lot less altruistic.  It is this: Trust is the key to future growth.  The US and to a great extent, the world, has come to its current economic and technology affluence because people have been unafraid to try new things.  How many people would have signed up for a service or device that they were afraid of?  I’m guessing here, but I don’t think many would.  Over the last half-decade, that fearlessness has been challenged.  Cyber-bullying, viruses, spyware, government overreach and privacy concerns are daily fodder for the press.  My question is this – what happens if fear starts to outweigh curiosity? What happens to the economic dynamics of technology if people suddenly start to shut down to new ideas?

I spent a few days at the Consumer Electronics Show this January and one of the overarching trends I saw at that show was a growing nostalgia for “comfort technologies.”  Record players and instant cameras were everywhere.  Iconic legacy brands like RCA, Kodak, and Polaroid dominated the conference.  I’m not saying that this represents anything more than a temporary trend.  But think about that trend for a moment.  My theory is that people have gone so far so fast over the past ten years – with the dawn of the smartphone to the prevalence of artificial intelligence – that there is an appetite for a simpler time and technologies that we trusted.  If we have a trust issue with technology, we have a major problem.

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