A moral maze for the wired generation

From a Royal Society of Arts lecture given by De Montfort University professor Simon Rogerson, for the Creating Sparks science festival
Click to follow

The computing technology revolution continues to accelerate. The applications of this universal tool seem limitless. Indeed the convergence of computing, media and communication technologies has meant that each day, we become more and more dependent on technology for work, travel, learning, communicating and so on. Such a pace of change has become the norm.

The computing technology revolution continues to accelerate. The applications of this universal tool seem limitless. Indeed the convergence of computing, media and communication technologies has meant that each day, we become more and more dependent on technology for work, travel, learning, communicating and so on. Such a pace of change has become the norm.

The question is not whether change should come, but how it should be implemented so that individuals and society as a whole will benefit. Indeed we are continually faced with new moral dilemmas as a result of advancing computing technology.

Computer programs may often comprise many modules and many thousands of lines of code. Such programs are likely to be developed by a team of programmers and are so large and complex that it is impossible for one person to understand completely how they work. The task of testing thoroughly, for example, 100,000 lines of code is enormous. The ethical dilemma lies in deciding how much testing to undertake while knowing that there remains a risk of malfunction if testing is not comprehensive and exhaustive.

The introduction of office-automation products is likely to result in efficiency gains and a reduction in operational overheads but could lead to health problems such as repetitive strain injury caused by long uninterrupted periods of computer use, or even mental stress caused by the break-up of social groups or the loss of status through job redesign - quite apart from job losses.

Computers can perform millions of computations each second, and so an individual calculation costs almost nothing and is virtually undetectable. This presents opportunities to make minor changes to programs for improper purposes. For example, a bank employee diverted to his own account all the fractions of pence arising on routine transactions affecting the bank's customers.

Ethical issues and considerations are often highlighted and addressed because of the mounting concerns shown by the public towards varied activities or the probable social implications of computer-based information systems. Partly as a response to such concerns, many of the leading computing-professional organisations and companies have spelt out prominent ethical issues, which they deemed as deserving close attention in computing-technology application, in the form of a code of ethics.

As computing technology evolves, the stakes become higher for individuals, businesses and society. Hence, social and ethical consideration is paramount in realising a democratic and empowering technology rather than an enslaving or debilitating one. While regulation and the law may act as a safeguard, it is people's willingness and desire to use computing technology sensitively that really matter. Effective education and awareness programmes are needed for all members of society in order to achieve the implementation of such a community-wide philosophy.

Unfortunately, too few organisations adequately take these considerations into account when applying the universal computing-technology tool. The line must be drawn. Those responsible for computing-technology development and application must give the same regard to the ethical and societal issues of their work that they do to the technological and economic ones. They are the custodians of the most powerful tool yet devised and must accept the social responsibility of their position.

The goal must be to ensure that computing technology is developed and utilised in a way that is beneficial to society, that empowers people and that minimises social divides. Many current applications do, but others do not. The time has come to ensure that ethical computing occurs not by luck but by design. The technology is too powerful to leave it to chance.

Comments