I read the paper of the Information Accountability Foundation to which Malcolm Crompton referred in his blog below on Digital Ethics of 8 Feb. It is indeed a laudable initiative, but I am a bit worried that it is just another attempt of trying to establish control on our world, its values and compliance to it. And I am afraid the world is too complex to try and control its state.
It is a “classical” approach with as a point of departure: “Established Societal Norms”, but it fails to address two basic questions:
- Is there a universal ethics basis. This point is discussed also in the book of Floridi (see the blog below on Informational Ethics of 17 Feb). If the answer is positive, the basis lies certainly must deeper and is much smaller than what is called “established societal norms” in the paper, which are recognised as different in different cultures.
- How do “established societal norms” differ between cultures and how do they change over time (incl. under influence of contacts between different cultures). A direct result of accepting dependence on time (which is rather undeniable; just compare norms in western Europe in the middle ages and now), is that it is highly dangerous to try to implement them at any specific moment through static algorithms that could become the static “code” of the future.
Established societal norms are the results of past, present and future (I hope) political processes. This becomes perfectly clear when we consider the five “values” proposed in the paper, which in the first place are very much based on western world human right principles.
- Beneficial: the direct question is beneficial to whom? What is beneficial to one, maybe be the opposite for another. Who will judge on the different interests that undoubtedly will exist? It is clearly therefore a political problem to decide what is beneficial for society and what not.
- Progressive: how do we judge again what is positive or valuable progress and what not. Even if we would accept that all increase of knowledge is worthwhile – which is difficult to accept as the problems with good/bad data are explained in the paper and history is also full of proof of knowledge that appeared wrong – then still knowledge can be used in good or evil ways. Or for naïve prejudices (e.g. there may be a high correlation to criminality and non-white people in our society, but it would be naïve to think that criminality comes with the skin colour). Again, these are all political judgements.
- Sustainable: the way this is addressed is a more interesting. In my view “half-time” is a well-defined concept in physics, but it is delusive if one wants to explain emergent behaviour” in a complex system like society. People (nature in general) react to situations and rules by circumventing, ignoring, inventing clever ways of dealing, accepting, etc. This creates the dynamic evolution of society. It is clear that this behaviour is unpredictable and it is wrong to suggest that one could predict “half-times” for models, rules based on models, values etc. We need to think about emerging behaviour when trying to ensure sustainability, but there is no simple way.
- Respectful: this is formulated in the sense that one needs to respect the interests of all involved. What shall we do again if the interests clash? People and organisations have all their own, often opposite, interests and it is the political process that tries to find solutions.
- Fair: I start to repeat myself. Fairness must be judged and enforced.
So what can we do? I think first of all that we should not look at the “state” of values in our society and try to formulate and protect them, but we should look at the “process” that our society is and how we can facilitate it, thereby protecting the autonomy thinking and creativity of individuals as part of this process.
That is why I, and many others, would focus on: transparent and open political processes with governments responsible and accountable for it vis-à-vis its citizens; transparent, auditable and accountable processes, services and products in enterprises and other organisations, which comply with the political decisions.