New technology and the ethics gap

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Possession of state-of-the-art technology provides a strong element of power, control and even oppression to its owners, which understandably creates a considerable ethical gap

As debates concerning the ever-deepening impact of technology on life gain prominence in the wake of the fourth industrial revolution, the issue of morality and ethical gaps in the use of novel technological advancements emerge as major areas of concern. This week, the scandal that surrounded the personal Facebook profiles of millions of U.S. voters, its relation to Donald Trump's presidential campaign without their prior knowledge and the fatal traffic accident involving a driverless Uber car rejuvenated the long-term debate concerning the ethics of technology.

Concerning the former, while around 50 million American voters were connecting with their friends on social media, Facebook was passing their personal profiles to a murky company called Cambridge Analytica, which then swiftly coordinated a targeted political campaign. This is a vivid example of how seemingly innocent social media platforms and the opportunities provided by advanced technology might be used for political purposes. But concerns of the ethical dimensions of technology go much deeper.

As a branch of creating new forms of knowledge, technology deals with the production and use of technical means to make life easier and stimulate socio-economic development. Technological progress draws on scientific research, applied science, engineering, industrial arts and interrelated areas of human development.

As such, the positivistic approach to technology argues that as a form of technical tool making, it must be exempt from moral or ethical qualities. But if we define ethics as the collection of moral principles that derive from religious beliefs, customs or fundamental human values in order to describe what is right, just or fair, the production and use of new technology surely has major ethical implications. As the fourth industrial revolution progresses with a view to link an ever-growing part of life with digital networks, ethical concerns pertaining to the preservation of dignity, personal information, health standards and fundamental freedoms become more pertinent.

There are vital moral and ethical issues that derive from the inception of new technologies, i.e., whether it would be morally right to pursue a technological innovation in the light of its potential social repercussions. There are also power-related concerns about new technology that has to do with the main actors who develop, control and adjust technological innovations according to their personal, corporate, political or strategic agendas. In other words, possession of state-of-the-art technology provides a strong element of power, control and even oppression to its owners, which understandably creates a considerable ethical gap.

This feature of technology, which determines the direction of social progress and curtails fundamental freedoms, has historically been subjected to severe criticism from Heidegger to the post-modernists. Heidegger was right in his warnings regarding the dangers of technology, as the masters of new technologies exert control over social groups through various mediating effects and limit the authenticity of the human experience. We could see reflections of this element of social control on the impact of computer games on shaping the minds of children, the impact of mass and social media in shaping political opinions and the impact of connectivity on allowing the storage and transfer of personal information. Further advancement of the fourth industrial revolution through cloud technology, the Internet of Things (IoT), connectivity, driverless cars and smart houses and factories is bound to deepen this social control and exacerbate existing moral and ethical problems.

As digital platforms and robots gain increasing prominence in shaping lives around the globe, the primary tensions in the hearts and minds of those who are programming those robots and designing those platforms acquire added importance. Computer programming could be used to strengthen cybersecurity for virtuous purposes or generate viruses for different forms of espionage. At the end of the day, ethical standards determine the way in which new technological tools are employed.

The same holds true for the use of nuclear technology, biotechnology, genetics, connectivity, surveillance technologies, identification technologies, rocket technologies and so on. From the Cambridge Analytica scandal, from which Facebook has taken a heavy blow with respect to its failure to preserve personal information of its users, to Uber's driverless car that hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, we are faced with frequent examples that show the importance of employing stringent ethical standards for new technologies. The fourth industrial revolution could advance smoothly only if the moral and ethical justification of new technological tools, models and systems are conducted to alleviate widespread concerns.

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