Lehigh University
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Can Technology Be Moral?

Do companies have an obligation to prevent the misuse of the products they create? Or should technology's users bear all responsibility for its proper use? As a computer scientist, Michael Spear loves technology. But his wife's background is in ethics, and they often find themselves discussing morality and technology. Together they realized that while Lehigh can teach students to be experts in their professional fields, in college too often students are left to learn ethics on their own.

From that realization, Spear has fashioned the seminar, "What Happens Online, Stays Online - Forever," which he presented at the Lehigh Seminar Series, part of Lehigh's First Year orientation program, Lehigh EvoLUtion.

Through discussion of several vignettes, Spear asked students to consider the role that we, as the users and creators of technology, should take in limiting harm and maximizing social good in an environment of rapid technological change. Each case is a story about where technology and the rest of life collide. Students could easily see that whether they are art students, designing a new business model or crafting public policy-whatever they create can suddenly be used in the wrong way.

The examples are often shocking.  A government traces disparaging comments to a Facebook identity, and imprisons the father of the account holder in retribution; A police blotter entry from 1990 continues to dominate search results for an individual, 22 years after the offense; Despite removing a YouTube video 15 minutes after posting it, unauthorized copies spread to hundreds of blogs, and ultimately cost the poster his job.  In these and other stories, unexpected and sometimes global consequences follow from seemingly harmless choices about how to use technology.  And the designers of those technologies are often horrified by the outcome.

Spear's point is that we don't imagine something we design will turn foul. "But we must ask ourselves, ‘Is anybody to blame for this? Did someone forget to do something that should be done? What could be prevented?"’

The moral of the stories: "You can't wait until after you've released technology to consider the ways in which it may be used, either for moral or immoral purposes," said Spear. "By then the cat is out of the bag. These things we know and love have these problems already.  As designers of anything we must try and do better from the start."

The goal is to get students thinking as they start to develop a project, adding an ethical element to the design. Students in this modern age must think as much about how technology might be abused as how it might be used.

Story by Jordan Reese

Posted on Friday, August 24, 2012

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