MT Expert - Innovation: The ethics of new technologies

Why businesses should worry about future ethical issues of emerging technologies, by Bernd Carsten Stahl.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The downside of technologically enabled business processes is that they can have unforeseen or unintended consequences. The ability to use social network tools to connect with customers or suppliers, for example, comes at the potential cost that employees may use these technologies for counter-productive activities. Open and interactive networks and applications can improve efficiency but they can also create significant security loopholes. Employee access to the Internet can improve business intelligence but can also lead to liability for online activities.

Some of the problems that new technologies raise are of an ethical nature. The prime example of such problems is that of privacy. Many emerging technologies that gather data for a variety of services or products can, at the same time, be used to spy on customers or employees and thereby negatively affect relationships within and between organisations. Another good example is the whole area of intellectual property. The recent legal proceedings against Pirate Bay show that new technologies provide new business models – but that these can be perceived to be unethical or even illegal, opening them up to legal challenges.

These examples show that businesses have good reasons to understand not only the technical features of emerging technologies but be aware of their social and ethical implications. This is, of course, not a simple thing to do. On the one hand, the future is open and we can never know whether predictions will be realised. In addition, the pure number of technical innovations is such that any individual business will be hard-pressed to stay on top of current developments. The easy solution for businesses and society in general would be to just ignore future problems and wait until they arise.

A more proactive approach could be more beneficial, however, if it means that new technologies are designed with a solution to ethical and social issues in mind. Currently, solutions tend to be bolted onto existing technologies and rarely fit well.

The fact that we can never know future technical developments and their consequences with certainty does not mean that we know nothing about future problems. New technologies are usually developed with a clear idea of their purpose. It may turn out that the way they are utilised is rather different, but knowing the intended purpose of the technology does give a good starting point for considering ethical and social issues.

When new technologies and ethical problems associated with them have been identified, the question is what can be done about them. The nature and extent of ethical issues means there isn’t a simple answer, but governance structures can help to add ethical and social sensitivity into the process of developing technology.

What is needed is research that gives a better understanding of emerging technologies and the issues they raise as well as the governance structures that will allow us to address them.

The European-funded ETICA project is exploring this issue through a team of researchers based in universities and businesses across Europe.

The team would like to get the opinions of a wide range of developers and users of new technologies. Everyone who shares an interest in these issues is invited to visit our website and contribute to the discussion at www.etica-project.eu.


Bernd Carsten Stahl is a Reader in Critical Research in Technology at De Montfort University. He’s currently coordinating a European research project on ‘Ethical Issues of Emerging ICT Applications’ (ETICA), which runs from April 2009 to May 2011.

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