Every now and again I get on my soap box. You can blame it on my mother who has taught ethics for over twenty years. I will try to make it brief and relatively painless.
Technology and innovation is expanding at an ever increasing pace. The internet has given us thousands of ways to communicate and not communicate at the exact same time. Complex technologies are layered so deep that thousands of people can work on a single project. It becomes easy to sit back and be a faceless member of that project.
Recently there have been some high profile instances of questionable ethics in innovation and technology. A great example of this is the Volkswagen emissions scandal. Here was a company that asked the programmers and engineers making the emissions control software to knowingly falsify results. I can’t imagine a situation where the programmers and quality control people wouldn’t see the problem. I expect that the justification was that the boss asked it to be done and so the blame rests with them. This is a false assumption. The blame rests with all of us.
We have a culture where we are afraid to stand up and say “this is the wrong thing to do”. If you are one engineer in a staff of hundreds and you refuse to do something because it’s not ethically right, you will most likely be replaced with someone who fears for their job more than you do.
Large and small companies, government agencies, and institutions of all types need to have a culture where it is easy for someone to say “we shouldn’t be doing this”. This can range from open – non judgmental – lines of communication with your boss, to departments where ethical concerns are listened to – and acted upon. An open discussion on what is the right thing to do is vital to our future with technology.
As technology continues to get more advanced, the ethical thinking that we have taken for granted must be put at the forefront of development. If we don’t, we will soon face a reality where we won’t be able to make those decisions anymore.
Ethical decisions in technology development are not a luxury. Ethics should be front and center or we won’t have them to worry about in the future.