Established Societal Norms

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

3 thoughts on “Established Societal Norms

  1. Tim Cole February 20, 2015 / 6:16 pm

    Autres pays, autre merde, as they say in France. Anyone who talks about “established social norms” is deluding himself. There are a number of norms that are recognized in developed countries (although this varies widely too) but are compeltey foreign in large parts of the world.

    I believe our job in searching for a common understanding of Digital Enlightenment will be to try and bring in as many people from the greaest possibkle diversity of backgrounds and social norms as possible. If not, we will simply stew in our own brew of beliefs and biases.


  2. malcolmoz February 21, 2015 / 5:19 am

    Tim – interesting thoughts. I see the paper by the Information Accountability Foundation as a ‘first draft’ rather than anything more final. I would be the first to agree that as currently written it contains a series of assumptions or points or approaches that are fundamentally ‘Western’ or even more narrowly ‘US’. But at least it starts a discussion, as it has here. And I haven’t seen too many other credible attempts at actually trying to formulate a framework rather than just saying there ought to be one without actually going that next step.

    The first question implied by Jacques, as I see it, is whether there are indeed any components of an ‘ethics’ framework that is sufficiently stable across cultures and across time that they can be adduced into an ethical framework and used.

    In other circumstances, this has proved possible. See for example the World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki – Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects at

    I don’t know whether or not it is possible in the context we are discussing.

    And hence I agree with your last para: in developing a common understanding of Digital Enlightenment we need to bring together as many people as possible from the greatest possible diversity of backgrounds and social norms.

    And I think forums such as DEF are essential inputs to the processes to which Jacques alluded. We need to push those processes along or we will be waiting a long time.


  3. Laurence Millar February 25, 2015 / 5:48 pm

    In my view there used to be established societal norms, and they were maintained by the community within which the social norm had been established – errant behaviour was punished, not necessarily by a legal system, but by other forms of social and community pressures. Experts in history and anthropology will be able to enumerate when progress dismantled these.

    But are these universal? Absolutely not – they never were and they never will be. Different communities, different values ……

    When they all come together in a post-digital globally connected “one world”, any efforts to impose homogeneity will fall at the first hurdle.

    Looking forward to 2 days and nights of discussions on this and other DEF topics


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