Colloquium: Ethics of IT artefacts

I sketch the moral impact information technology (IT) has on our daily lives in section one. We act through IT, are restrained by it, use it to influence people, to express ourselves, and so on. This book and the preceding chapters bear witness to this claim. Section two takes up the question of how IT influences us exactly, and what the moral dimension is of that influence. The issues are not so obviously at all. To begin with, what do we mean when speaking of ‘information technology’? IT is a generic notion that encompasses many things from computers, the components that computers are made of, the software that runs on the computers, hardisks. In a somewhat wider sense it encompasses the governance structures, the engineers, the users, etc. Before we can engage in an analysis of the ethics of IT artefacts we need to establish exactly what we are talking about. And then in turn what the moral dimension is of these artefacts. Section three discusses how Science and technology studies (STS) focus on the interaction between sciences and technological development on the one hand and society on the other. Politics and culture drive to some extent the technological developments. These in turn affect society, politics and culture. STS researchers have addressed questions about technical artefacts and their moral dimension. Are technical artefacts neutral means to human ends, are they bearers of moral values, or even moral agents? I also describe various kinds of increasingly capable artefacts as agents, and discuss what kind of moral attribution and evaluation might be meaningful with regard to these kinds of artefact-agents. Comparing IT artefacts with technical artefacts, in section four, I investigate whether there is anything in the nature of IT artefacts that sets them apart from technical artefact to such an extent that the STS analyses do not (fully) apply. In the various positions in STS on the moral status of technical artefacts the dividing lines are around agency and intentionality. Using these core concepts I revisit the current developments in information technology to investigate to what extent there are reasons to set IT artefacts apart from technical artefacts in the ethical analysis. In closing, section five, I describe some developments in information technology that might lead to IT artefacts that have a different ethical dimension that would require us to reconsider again the moral status of IT artefacts.

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