Ethics in technology

Technology has an ethics problem. I don’t mean that it’s evil, although I’d forgive you for thinking that. Just take a look at Theranos or Mylan, or Uber’s parade of seemingly-unending scandals. So yes, there are some actors for whom “they lack a moral compass” is theย charitable explanation. No, the main problem is that we spend so little time thinking about ethics.

It’s too easy to think that since your intent is good that your results will be, too. But good intent is not sufficient. It’s important to consider impacts as well, especially the impacts on people not like you. (Note that I use “you” to avoid awkward wording. I’m guilty of this as well.) And when you do consider the impacts, don’t be Robert Moses. Does your new web interface make it harder for people who use screen readers? Is your insulin meter easy to misinterpret for someone whose blood sugar is off?

The work we do in the technology sector every day can have a significant impact on people’s lives. And yet ethics courses are often an afterthought in college curricula. Of course, many in tech are self-trained with no real professional body to provide guidance. This means they get no exposure to professional ethics at all. It’s no wonder that we, as an industry, ignore our ethical obligations.

7 thoughts on “Ethics in technology

  1. I see how you are. Stepping on my talk I’m giving Monday about thinking about the consequences about what we do as IT folks. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    It is a valid point that we need to consider the impact our work makes.

  2. Isn’t this true for any field that is driven by results of short term forecasts?
    One could argue (see what I did there?) that unethical outcomes that you are describing are an inevitable outcome of efficiency and optimization.

    In biological systems, the efficiency is honed by evolutionary processes to incredible six-sigma like leanness, but it is always secondary to effectiveness of the system. An example: Clotting of blood is an extremely efficient positive-feedback-loop process, but needs to be very tightly controlled secondary to its effectiveness. Or the organism ends up as a large block of haggis.

    We can discuss this further if we run into each other on #MarioMarathon!!

  3. @sundeep I don’t know if I like the biology analogy here (and I definitely don’t like two consecutive -ogy words). In theory, humanity should be more than just our biology. After all, blood doesn’t choose to clot; it just happens that clotting the right amount is advantageous.

    Myopic focus on the short term is definitely a problem in many areas, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily the case in a lot of these situations. Going back to the insulin meter example, a less ambiguous interface would not necessarily have a higher short-term cost. I suspect with a little more empathy, we could come to equally-efficient results that are more ethical. This is true in more than just technology, of course, but 1. I think about technology a lot and 2. technology often has an outsized impact due to the number of people who interact with it and the degree to which we rely on it.

  4. Wow. Great muse-ing
    I have a long history in education. And I never had any real ethics training. Some may find it silly but it should be included in curriculum. Not everyone is exposed to this topic and also have the innate so called common sense that people seem to have. Let’s discuss this some more next week at #mariomarathon

  5. A “How to adult” section, I love it! We’ve done that off and on on osmactalk…

  6. Pingback: Silicon Valley has no empathy - Blog FiascoBlog Fiasco

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