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The world has become digitised, leading to an ever-increasing range of applications. Thus, there now exists global deep-seated dependency on digital technology. This digitisation of everything requires a greater emphasis on what we should now call digital ethics, which can be defined as integrating digital technology and human values in such a way that digital technology advances human values, rather than doing damage to them.
This new vision must be theoretically grounded but pragmatic. Digital ethics must exhibit phronesis, which is practical wisdom where values intersect with knowledge, and praxis, which is practical, thoughtful action. In this way, industry and government will engage, accept and embrace this as a modus operandi.
It is virtuous action that promotes an ethical digital age. Established rules may offer some guidance as to the correct path, but such rules can easily become the instruments of blatant superficial compliance, which at best is problematic and at worst, immoral.
Within industry and government, the compliance culture has taken a firm hold and so strangles the opportunity for dialogue and analysis of complex multi-faceted socio-ethical issues related to digital technology. Superficial compliance must be challenged vigorously in the digital age. Organisational silo mentalities must be similarly challenged and replaced by inclusivity and empathy that will embrace a global community from the cradle to the grave.
In the digital age, it is people who change things. It is people who make digital technology. It is people who use and abuse digital technology. The tension between use and abuse is where the ethical hotspots lie. There are endless ethical hotspots – here are just two recent examples.
In 2020, many of the convictions of 736 subpostmasters and subpostmistresses were overturned as it was proved that the Horizon digital accounting system installed by the Post Office in 1999 had many faults, leading to massive financial discrepancies which were wrongly attributed to Post Office employees. Unverified digital forensics was the only evidence used for conviction – clearly an unethical action. Virtuous action could have prevented the wrongful conviction of so many subpostmasters and subpostmistresses.
The Online Safety Bill is working its way through the UK Parliament. This is a piece of reactive legislation following many horrendous and heinous acts occurring in the online world. Much detailed discussion and debate continues as public safety, civil liberty, vested interests and other perspectives interplay.
But there is a single shocking fact about this process. The legislation is too late for the many who have suffered in the online world, suffering which inevitably spilled over into their day-to-day existence and, sadly, for some ended in their death.
Such reactive legislation has started to appear across the world. It is all too late and it is the wrong approach to ensure that ever-increasing dependency on digital technology is beneficial for us all and not devastating. How can we bring about change?
Often driven by commercial imperatives, technological advances are meteoric, while typically the associated reactive legislation and governance are pedestrian. This misalignment of timelines means that lawless frontiers such as the online world often exist.
Social impact consideration needs to sit alongside technological development so that early warnings occur of potential concerns and, in turn, trigger timely proactive legislation and governance. Will this happen? Only if there is a widespread mind shift driven by new approaches to the education and awareness of us all.
Organisations need to adopt this broader perspective to ensure that ethical digital technology flourishes. They need to change the way they look at the feasibility of their activities. There are 11 spheres within which an organisation needs to have a presence to progress, mature and influence:
- Sector – The community concerned with the pursuit of the particular product or service. The community is best sustained by access, openness, inclusivity and freedom.
- Research and development – This involves the participation in extending the body of knowledge through original thought, experimentation and application.
- Service and product delivery – Delivery of useful products and services that are grounded in valid research and development.
- Physical – Identity and culture are portrayed through explicit physical entities, such as location and layout of accommodation.
- Virtual – Global visibility is achieved via the virtual world through, for example, social media, video streaming and web portals.
- Political – Local, national and international political systems significantly influence organisational wellbeing.
- Partnerships – Effective service and product delivery is reliant upon good links and subsequent partnerships, both formal and informal.
- Professional – Engagement is essential with professional bodies which represent, influence and govern professional practice.
- Institutional and corporate – Participation in strategic leadership, administration, review and growth.
- Finance and funding – Financial governance relies upon effective funding that covers both traditional funding streams and opportunistic funding activities such as venture capital.
- International – Global collaborations with individuals at all levels, as well as collective organisations.
Involvement and operation across these 11 spheres, taking into account the ethical and social perspectives of digital technology, provides a blueprint and the key to unlocking ethical digital technology in practice.
Simon Rogerson’s latest book, Ethical Digital Technology in Practice, will be published this month. The second in the trilogy Ethical Digital Technology, the book is about the real world, of what has happened and what might happen as digital technology continues to pervade. It reimagines ways in which to promote ethical digital technology through good practice.