Book Review: Technology Is Not Neutral: A Short Guide to Technology Ethics

Book Review: ‘Technology Is Not Neutral: A Short Guide to Technology Ethics’

Stephanie Hare, author of the recently published, ‘Technology Is Not Neutral: A Short Guide to Technology Ethics’, will join us at Business of Software Conference Online next week, 9 March to talk about an important topic.

The book is easy to read in the sense it is well written. Some of the ideas might keep you awake at night thinking about some of the consequences. She frames her arguments by offering some perspectives on the history of technology and clearly explains the two opposing sides of view on the question.

Is technology neutral?

In the neutral corner…

On the side of neutrality, she discusses the views of people including Demis Hassabis – DeepMind founder, Verner Vogels – Amazon CTO and others who argue broadly that technology is neutral but can be applied for good and bad. It is not really the tech that is the problem, it can be very powerful, but it is users that can abuse the power.

The legendary chess grand master Garry Kasparov sums up the neutral side succinctly.

“Tech is agnostic, it amplifies us. ‘Ethical AI’ is like ‘Ethical electricity’”

In the not neutral corner…

There’s an equally formidable team who consider the consequences of technology and how it is used. Caroline Criado Perez highlights how technology can often ignore women at every stage of development from design through implementation. Sometimes this is merely annoying but it can also be life-threatening. Speech recognition systems have higher error rates for women users and when this is used in situations such as emergency rooms, the result can endanger everyone in their care. For them, technology and society are linked and technology has to be considered in this much wider context.

As the world’s first web developer puts it.

“As we are designing the system, we are designing society.”

Sir Tim Berners Lee

The creepy line

There has been an ongoing discussion around technology ethics over decades that has become increasingly important as technology explodes exponentially. The idea that tech can regulate itself becomes increasingly hard to justify when every technology development becomes more intertwined with a wider ecosystem of developing technologies. Even in isolation, it is hard to appreciate the line between what can be done and should be done and what can be done and should not be done. Tech has a seemingly endless appetite to keep pushing boundaries.

“There’s what I call, ‘the creepy line’ and the Google policy… …is to get right up to ‘the creepy line’ but not cross it.”

Eric Schmidt, CEO, Google 2010. Now Pentagon Advisor.

Who decides what the creepy lines are? Where is the creepy line now? The creepy line moves over time.

Neutrality as power not capability

Stephanie considers what happens when we cross from the theoretical to the real world and argues neutrality is not just about values and capability, it is about power and that is at the heart of the challenge for us.

“How can we create and use technology that maximises benefits and minimises harm?”

Stephanie Hare

It’s a simple enough question but there are no simple answers. The concept of maximising benefits and minimising harm is derived from utilitarianism and there’s a strong overlap between this concept and that of scale. In technology, scale is good – it means larger markets, higher returns for investors. However, it can leave the minority behind, disadvantaged or actively harmed however.

What is good for 80% of the population is not good for 1,600,000,000 people.

In the real world

In the book, Stephanie dives deep into two areas where technology ethics challenges are in play today, facial recognition and tools to address the global Covid-19 pandemic. Both offer the promise of a better world for many whilst simultaneously creating serious concerns for others about a huge number of implications around privacy, who owns data, how it is used which she explores in depth.

Technology ethics as a wicked problem

Stephanie concludes by describing technology ethics as inherently a wicked problem – a social/cultural issue that is difficult to explain and inherently impossible to solve.

It would be expecting too much for anyone to be able to both explain and solve the problem but this is probably one of the best explanations of the technology ethics problem I’ve come across. She also shares useful ideas about how we can consider and discuss the challenges we all face.

Strong recommendation to read ‘Technology Is Not Neutral: A Short Guide to Technology Ethics’

We look forward to talking with Stephanie next week at Business of Software Conference Online, 9 March.

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