Ethics is not missing in technology. Our ethics and values are always present in the creation and use of technology. The technology society creates and chooses not to create is a window into the ethics and values of the powerful. The technological feats and the business models that sustain them are a mirror to the priorities of the few who hold the capital and capability to create technology. These values and priorities are self-serving, disproportionately favoring the powerful. This is an unequal process with unfair outcomes and, based on institutional discrimination and the historical power imbalances between North and South, risks to perpetuate local and global inequalities. The call for ethics in technology should be a call to challenge the individualistic ethics that shapes power and privilege and their influence thereof in the creation and use of technology.
Ethics describes one’s relationship and responsibilities to others and the environment. Ethics is the protocol for human interaction, with each other and with the world. Different ethical systems may be described through this scale: Individualistic systems promote one’s self assertion through the limitation of one’s relationship and responsibilities to others and the environment. In contrast, a more communal ethics asserts the self through the encouragement of one’s relationship and responsibilities to the community and the environment.
In a connected world, individualism, and the concentration of power it allows for, leads to autocratic power asymmetries. The historical relationship between the North and the South has been unable to check the imbalances of western individualism and its influence in the South. The power imbalances are carried into the future as large tech companies expand into the developing world and, with little resistance, monopolize the digital market for future payouts. The colonial relationships are continued much so in the fourth industrial revolution as the technology still created does little to equalize the power dynamics between North and South. Technology designed and deployed beyond its ethical borders poses a threat to social stability in different regions with different ethical systems, norms and values. The imposition of a society’s beliefs on another is colonial. This relationship can be observed even amongst members of the South as the more economically developed nations extend their technology and influence into less developed nations, the East to Africa relationship being an example.
Individualism is a denial of our interconnectedness and its results can be devastating for the disenfranchised. Unintended consequences to others are bound to happen when the focus is on the benefit of the powerful few. Individualism wherever it is deployed will always allow for exploitation through the affordance of self-serving power imbalances. An individualistic ethics allows for the concentration of power through the abandonment of responsibility to others and the environment. It may be rightfully argued that the harms to the environment, and exacerbation of social inequalities, especially income inequality, are a direct outcome of individualistic ethics that has gone unrestrained in its manifestation in the political and economical structures that underlie society. The role of technological companies in some social harms is another iteration of the ethics that favors and rewards the powerful. While it may not be possible to predict each unintended consequence of technology resulting from too-big-to-fail tech companies, it is possible to determine the general case which will always almost be a power imbalance that will harm the powerless and disproportionately benefit the powerful.
Ethics is not missing in technology, rather we are witnessing the ethics in technology – the ethics of the powerful. The ethics of individualism.
Ethics is applied through power. When technology companies, for instance, in the process of amassing power, harm society (socially, economically, politically), it is not just an oversight, it is an insight into their ethics – It is an insight to power at work under individualistic values. The technological revolution is molded by the interests and priorities of a select few companies, countries and continents. The creation of technology is a result of various motivations, incentives and goals which may not be inclusive or meant for the welfare of society. The process of building technology itself requires time, effort, capital, and material – value based conscious decisions. The process of developing technology is not an unbiased one, it directly embeds the creators’ ethical values through the prioritization of features.
Those with the technical and financial means to bring about technology therefore hold significant power and influence over society. Technology shapes society through the interactions and experiences it allows and disallows. As technology has adapted and evolved to be more social and more personal, it has encroached into the sacred aspects of what makes us human. More than ever our wellbeing and personal choices are now aided and shaped by the use of “intelligent” technology. Statisticians and Computer Scientists have created models of human behavior that correlate to massive amounts of personal data collected on our individual behaviors. As much as these algorithmic models are purportedly aimed to advance society, largely through the automation of the human experience, not everyone’s humanity is accounted for or benefits in the creation and use of this technology.
In the development and funding of technology, marginalized groups are underrepresented. Their values and views are unaccounted for. In the software industry marginalized groups make a minority of the labor force and leadership roles. The digital divide continues to increase when technology is only accessible through the languages of the well developed nations. In technologies such as Natural Language Processing languages spoken by a large portion of the global poor are not represented. It matters who gets access to venture capital, it matters who makes up the labor force creating technology, it matters who is in leadership positions guiding the technology being built.
Technology should allow for ethical uses and a conscious awareness of ethics must inform the technology we should and should not build. Humans are expected to act ethically – technology that acts as humans or aids humans, especially in important decision making, should be also ethical: The outcome of the use of technology should be ethical. If a technology has the potential for unethical uses it should be regulated appropriately. Ethics should not be left to algorithmic definitions and processes, ultimately ethics is a result of the human will. Technology won’t save us. The abdication of social and environmental responsibility by creators of technology should not be allowed to become the norm. The norm that tech companies can become as big as they are should also be challenged, and rejected, especially so in the Global South as it poses to lose from unequal power relationships with the North. Any entity that has mass influence over society should be accountable to society. Mass influence with little accountability is authoritarian, imperialistic and is the root of corruptive power.
The ethics of the powerful matters. It is their ethics that becomes applied through their spheres of influence. The more power one has the more imperative that one must be ethical and capable of fulfilling the social responsibility afforded by power. The ethical person has a positive relationship with the environment and with society. Equally so, an ethical society is expected to have an healthy and positive relationship and responsibility to the individual, even in its interaction with the environment. The ethical society creates the conditions for one to develop one’s humanity through the development of positive and healthy relationships with one’s environment and with others.
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. In a more connected world, the denial of our interconnectedness is dangerous, deadly and degrades the human experience. As the Bantu ethics asserts, we are intricately connected. Ubuntu asserts the main goal of ethics solely as the development of one’s humanity through the development of others’ humanity. Ethics is ultimately about the preservation and restoration of humanity. Our technology, politics, economies, society must be judged in this light. A society where human interest is lost is unethical. A society where capital and business matter more than human lives and the environment they live in is unethical. Unethical leaders and companies should not be granted the responsibility to shape society or awarded the right to lead it into the future. In order to build better technology and a better world, we must reimagine our own futures. We must reimagine the relationships that define the North and South. We must reimagine the self-centered and self-serving centralization of power stemming from an individualistic ethics. We have a chance, especially in the developing world, to adopt or return to an ethics that will usher in an equitable future for all, and we must rightfully seize it.