Green explores tech ethics and its boundaries in new paper

February 4, 2022

Who gets to define the ethics behind the use of technology in society? The discussion has become more pressing amid controversies related to misinformation, privacy, and algorithmic bias. 

Ben Green explores this question as editor of a special issue of the Journal of Social Computing. His article, “The Contestation of Tech Ethics: A Sociotechnical Approach to Ethics and Technology in Action,” notes that these controversies have prompted increased public scrutiny of digital technologies and soul-searching among many of the people associated with their development. In response, the tech industry, academia, civil society, and governments have rapidly increased their attention to “ethics” in the design and use of digital technologies (“tech ethics”). 

“Yet despite the seeming promise of ethics, tech ethics in practice suffers from several significant limitations: tech ethics is vague and toothless, has a myopic focus on individual engineers and technology design, and is subsumed into corporate logics and incentives,” Green wrote. “These limitations suggest that tech ethics enables corporate ‘ethics-washing’: embracing the language of ethics to defuse criticism and resist government regulation, without committing to ethical behavior. Given these dynamics, I describe tech ethics as a terrain of contestation where the central debate is not whether ethics is desirable, but what ‘ethics’ entails and who gets to define it.”

Green notes that discussion of tech ethics emerged in the late 2010s as tech controversies came to light for the first time.

“These controversies also brought public attention to what scholars … have long argued: technology is shaped by social forces, technology structures society in often deleterious ways, and technology cannot solve every social problem,” he said. 

While the many different sectors debate tech ethics, they have their limits. Green claims four core limitations: 

  • Tech ethics principles are abstract and toothless.
  • Tech ethics is subsumed into corporate logic and incentives.
  • Tech ethics has a myopic focus on individual engineers and technology design.
  • Tech ethics has become an avenue for ethics-washing.

“The central question is what tech ethics actually entails in practice,” he asks. “While some frame tech ethics as encompassing broad societal debates about the social impacts of technology, others define tech ethics as narrower industry-led efforts to explicitly promote ‘ethics’ in technology. On the former view, tech ethics is an important and beneficial movement for improving digital technology. On the latter view, tech ethics is a distraction that hinders efforts to achieve more equitable technology.”

Green predicts that technology companies will label themselves as ethical without actually changing any policies or being ethical, and he warns of “porous and slippery boundaries.”

Finally, Green presents a sociotechnical approach to tech ethics, which looks at them through four lenses: determinism, solutionism, objectivity and neutrality, and sociotechnical systems.

He concludes with this insight: “Rather than treating tech ethics as a body of objective and universal moral principles, it is necessary to grapple with the standpoints and power of different actors, the normative principles embodied in different ethical frameworks, and potential mechanisms for adjudicating between conflicting ethical commitments.”

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This story was written by Olivia Bradish (BA ‘23).