I’ve recently been reading a little book from 2003 by John Gray entitled ‘Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern‘. I was particularly struck by a few words on page 27 – “The history of ideas obeys a law of irony. Ideas have consequences but rarely those their authors expect or desire, and never only those. Quite often they are the opposite.”
I think one of the key conclusions of Ethicomp 2011, which was examining ‘the Social Impact of Social Computing’, was that it is very difficult to establish a set of ethical values or rules around technology that whilst it might have its origins in the good intentions of its developers, may be used for less benign or totally unexpected purposes.
Throughout the conference I was repeating the mantra that individual ethical values begin when taught in the cradle onwards, only then will someone know whether they are making good or bad use of the tool they are employing, be that a hammer or a computer. It is difficult to establish a code of conduct or standard that will be effective for future technologies, when we have no concept of the actual use that will be made of them. Guidance is being examined for those funding research into new technologies, which in some ways parallels the ethical issues within the bioscience community, but in others is yet to be conceived.
For now, we can only do our best and hope it’s good enough!