Does Society Believe Computers are Ethical?
Throughout history, humankind has made several technological advances with widespread implications. Undoubtedly, many of these advancements probably caused a great diversity of personal beliefs; and sometimes these personal beliefs are so strong and conflicting that they inevitably cause social unrest and political controversy. For example, when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, the economic situation in the American south forced the political landscape to develop into a widening rift between the opponents and proponents of slavery (Encyclopedia Britannica 672). Accordingly, since the introduction of the personal computer, computers have permeated throughout all aspects of society, thus influencing society and producing a variety of controversial opinions about them. As a result, two primary viewpoints have developed among the populace, which are against and for computer technology.
One of the initial reasons why people are against computers is because some people are intimidated by them; or rather, a lot of people are intimidated by computers, because these people do not have a fundamental understanding about them and/or are frightened by the drastic changes computers have brought to modern civilization. However, these opinions are not generally held by individuals who already have some experience with computers and who probably have an intuitive understanding of computer limitations.
Another reason why computers are looked upon unfavorably is that society, in general, has developed a "Frankenstein Complex". This is the belief that artificial intelligences will one day control the world. Therefore, they will possibly use this power to suppress or eradicate the human race. Obviously, this could easily give people a hysterical and paranoid mentality. Even though there is not any real basis for this mentality, the entertainment media has continuously fueled this mentality for purely economic reasons. Also, a significant number of people believe computers and artificial intelligent research to be unnatural, morally wrong, and even a threat to their religion. These opinions usually have a good philosophical viewpoint; meaning that computers have and will continue to have a strong moral impact on society and not necessarily in a good way. Evidently, this contradicts and sometimes even attacks a lot of current moral and religious beliefs, but this can be true for almost all sciences. For example, computer science is a field that Quakers will never have a monopoly on. However, these opinions in general are not scientific in reasoning, because they are based on stereotypes developed usually from historical and fictional ideals. Therefore, some of the initial reasons why computers are looked down upon is because of people's ignorance, media sensationalism, and personal or religious beliefs.
One of the major reasons why computers are looked upon negatively is because computers have saturated certain job markets. An obvious proof of this is a large percentage of jobs that have been around since the industrial revolution are now being done by robots, expert systems, and other artificially intelligent programs. A serious controversy presents itself when human workers are attempting to earn a living in a saturated job market, while employers are only interested in the business aspects, such as: earning a larger profit, competing with other businesses, and trying to stay in business. In some instances, some employers appear to care more about their businesses and accumulating wealth than their workers. Some of the main reasons why employers prefer computers over real people are that machines are usually cheaper, more efficient, safer to use, have no benefits to pay (such as insurance), and easily work for longer hours at menial and repetitive tasks than people. Oddly enough, "U.S. firms fail to exploit the new technologies' capabilities" compared to Japanese businesses (People 59). It is safe to assume that employers would much rather have machines working for them, when possible, than people for several reasons just mentioned. Consequently, this raises the big issue whether using computers to undermine people's job security is ethical (Forester 187). To make matters worse, the political atmosphere, that has developed between labor unions and big businesses, has only strengthened the opposition of both sides instead of searching for solutions. As a result, the competition of jobs between human workers and automated machines has caused an enormous amount of social, political, and economic friction. It is unlikely that this controversy will be ever solved in the near future; unless somehow, computers are abolished from the work place or people are.
With the enormous growth of computers in today's society, an entire new industry of unethical "high-tech" crimes have been mushrooming. Consequently, the reputation that computers have is so notorious that even the general public is aware of it. For instance, almost everyone is aware of at least one case when computers have been used for illegal acts, such as: software piracy, hacking into supposedly secure computer systems, virus making/releasing, phishing, and many more crimes. One of the main reasons why these crimes are so widespread is because they are easy to do and easy to get away with (Forester 23). Another reason is that computer ethics is loosely defined, and people are not taught the ramifications of doing these crimes. This raises the question whether computers are ethical because of their widespread implication in crimes. Just like gunpowder, computers were initially designed to be tools to help mankind; unfortunately, they also have the potential of harming mankind more than helping. For example, computers are a vital part in modern businesses; now just imagine the global ramifications if a computer virus attacked Wall Street. It can be inferred that it is not the computer that is unethical; but rather, some of their usages and only people are to blame for that (Parker 190-191).
On the other hand, there are several reasons for computer technology. Computers have probably been the most useful and versatile tool mankind has ever invented. Almost all aspects of society have started to assimilate computers in everyday life. At first, only scientists and engineers had access to computers, mainly because computers had enormous price tags. Scientists in the 1990's are almost total dependent on computers; because they sometimes deal with data that is so large and complex that only computers are able to accurately process this data fast enough. For example, modern astronomers would easily be overwhelmed with huge amounts of information if they did not have computers. Also, employers and employees benefit from computers in numerous ways. Employers use computers to organize and manage their companies, while employees use computers to increase work efficiency and to do dangerous tasks (People 83-84). For example, recently in the news, a robot was used to explore an active volcano, thus eliminating any danger to surveyors and geologists. In Japan, small robots are used to search for people trapped in burning buildings, thus reducing some of the risks to firefighters. However, computers in the work place do have their negative side as mentioned earlier. Computers have also become popular as educational tools. Computers are able to give students a more personal and interactive teaching lesson than classrooms; in addition, computers are much more patient than human teachers and are great for doing research. Finally, the general populace uses computers for both practical and entertainment purposes. For instance, the telephone service and most new cars are totally dependent on computers, while the music and movie industry have been enhanced via computers. As a result, this proves that computers are also being used for ethical purposes.
In conclusion, computers have been proven to be used for both ethical and unethical acts. Unfortunately, some computer usages are considered both ethical and unethical depending on personal viewpoints, such as computers in the work place. However, both sides of this computer controversy do present some valid arguments for and against computers even with personal biases. As a result, this controversy has only become more complex, and it does not appear as if this controversy is going to be solved in the near future.
by Phil for Humanity
NOTE: This paper was first published in the Fall of 1999.
- Forester, Tom, and Perry Morrison. Computer Ethics: Cautionary Tales and Ethical Dilemmas in Computing. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: M.I.T. Press, 1994.
- The New Encyclopedia Britannia. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1994 v.3.
- Parker, Donn B., Susan Swope, and Dr. Bruce N. Baker. Ethical Conflicts in Information and Computer Science, Technology, and Business. Massachusetts: QED Information Sciences, Inc., 1990.
- People and Technology in the WorkPlace. Washington D.C.: Washington D.C., Inc., 1991.