Something is rotten in the state of technology, and this book is here to fix it (by inspiring us all to fix it).
Ethics? Oh no
If you hear the word “ethics” and get an uncontrollable desire to tune out, I feel you. I finished Uni and got my degree in Philosophy in 2015. The years of having to struggle my way through the writings of Kant, Heidegger, Hobbs and the like are still fresh in my mind.
So, mind you, it was an out-of-this-world experience to encounter a book on ethics that cites both Kant, Heidegger and others but does not make me want to suffocate myself with a pillow.
(I apologize in advance to all of my philosophy professors who might be reading this. I loved your classes but alas the works of classic philosophers were never my cup of tea).
Jokes aside, it’s hard to argue that ethics is not the most engaging subject, and in no way is it a practical one. Elevated discussions on what’s right and wrong do not make it any clearer for us, mere mortals, what — if anything — can be done here and now to make things better.
This is where this book comes in. It’s theoretical enough that you’ll be able to understand the difference between utilitarianism and deontology. But also practical enough that each ethical question discussed is followed by an array of possible solutions.
Tech + ethics: why this combo?
There exists a sustained belief that technology is “neutral”: “it’s how they use it, not how we make it”. Facebook and Twitter are not responsible for the myriads of hate speech messages distributed on those platforms daily: their users are. Or are they?
In his media theory McLuhan shows that any technological medium works as an extension of man that affects both the way we perceive the world and the way we function in it. In their own time writing, print, telephone, industrialisation and the internet changed the world irreversibly.
“We become what we behold… we shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us”. (“Understanding Media”, McLuhan)
Technology has a power to shape human life. Refusal to admit this simple truth is what McLuhan described as a ‘narcissistic hypnosis’ — “a syndrome whereby man remains as unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in.”
Despite many wanting to believe so, technology is not neutral. It is not just a tool any individual can use to achieve their personal goals, however well-intentioned or malicious. This approach is just a way to shift the responsibility onto the user.
The products we create today will shape the lives of tomorrow. That’s what we are doing: we’re beta testing technology with our own lives (in a less hyperbolic way, with our safety, privacy and well-being). We need to decide whether we want reckless and unsupervised data collection of today to provide the totalitarian states of tomorrow with unprecedented means for surveillance, or if storing billions of terabytes of Instagram pictures is worth all the CO2 emissions of its data centers.
That’s why we all need ethics in tech, and we need it now: to help us ask the right questions and find the best answers.
If you don’t work in tech, this book is still relatable
Even if you are not working with technology, you are more than likely affected by it. You have a phone, a car, a laptop, a tablet — the list goes on. Even if you yourself have decided to denounce all modern devices and vehicles to lead a tech free life (and I applaud you for you determination), others around you will still use them, affecting your life anyway. Automated vehicles are likely just around the corner (both literally and figuratively): any pedestrian can be influenced by decisions the creators of automated vehicles are making right now. Don’t even get me started on automated weapons.
Conclusion: if you are a human being living and breathing in modern society, this book is worth your time. But especially if you are someone who can make decisions in tech, I highly recommend you read it — before it’s too late.