“A person is her or his information. “My” in “my information” is not the same as “my” in “my car” but rather the same as “my” as in “my body” or “my feelings”; it expresses a sense of constitutive belonging, not of external ownership, a sense in which my body, my feelings, and my information are part of me but are not my (legal) belongings.” – Luciano Floridi
For my cyberculture research this semester, I’ve (somewhat naively) chosen to delve into the deeply bewildering but nonetheless fascinating world of ethics in the age of information.
Far, far from being the simple and defined area I thought it to be, my research thus far has uncovered a complex web (read: absolute cluster-f**k) of academic and popular discourse encompassing numerous overlapping vortices of knowledge in the area.
To give you an idea, in my research, I came across the following terms/topic areas: e-democracy, cyber-democracy, cyber-ethics, digital rights, e-citizenship, intercultural computing ethics (ICE), digital media ethics, the ethics of information, consequentialist ethics and utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, feminist ethics… (I could go on.)
In the video below, Damon Horowitz discusses data and ethics to an audience in Silicon Valley: “What’s the formula that we can use in any situation to determine what we should do, whether we should use that guy’s data or not? What’s the formula? There’s not a formula. There’s not a simple answer.
After much confusion and deliberation, however, I did manage to make some kind of sense of it all (well, kind of!). Below are some distinctions/definitions/reasoning which I feel need to preface a discussion and summary of my research:
- If there is no distinction between our offline reality and online reality (Aren’t we all ‘onlife’?), why is a discussion of ethics in digital spaces/digital media relevant? This was the first and most obvious tension I came across in my research. Yes – the lines between our digital lives and non-digital lives are blurred if not indistinguishable. This means that the moral codes and ethics we practice offline also apply online. But digital spaces have presented us with some entirely new ethical challenges, too. In Digital Media Ethics, Charles (2013) acknowledges three ethical challenges: 1.) The sorts of ethical conundrums already familiar to us, that are similarly found in traditional media. E.g, ‘Can we illegally copy a song for our own use?’ 2.) These familiar difficulties with new ‘wrinkles.’ E.g, the fact that new media has enabled an easy, cheap and accessible way of making perfect copies of someone’s song, and 3.) Challenges that are entirely unique to digital media. E.g, in the quote by Floridi at the beginning of this blog, it is pointed out that there is a discrepancy between ownership, privacy and legal rights in digital and non-digital spaces. The ethical challenge presented depends on whether these notions are situated online or offline.
- Rest assured, this is not a discussion informed by moral panics. Predictably, I came across multiple articles and reports forewarning young people and adults of the dangers and risks involved in ‘being online’, and much advice on what’s acceptable and not acceptable. Some of these kinds of articles were not only outdated but steeped in moral panic, or as Charles (2013) tells, “technology good” and “technology bad.” These kinds of dichotomous analyses are something that I want to avoid.
- How will I define what’s ‘ethical’? I know just enough about philosophy to know just how incredibly vast and complex the discipline is, and just how much I really don’t know. So I’ll be upfront about this: whilst I’ll endeavour to be as informed as possible, my discussion of ethics will be situated within my own, basic, subjective understanding of it. Maybe this is best. To get a little meta, I don’t know how I feel about even trying to argue for the correctness of a singular theory of ethics (Wikipedia tells me this is actually a metaethics theory called ‘ethical pluralism’).
In light of all of this, the scope of my research will be to unpack some of the ethical challenges that we, as everyday people who use the internet, knowingly or unknowingly tangle with. I will focus primarily on the challenges which are familiar to analogue, but with new ‘wrinkles’, and those that are particular to digital spaces (as mentioned above.) The judgement of the ethical correctness of an action will be a thoughtful one, but one that is highly subjective and one that may not necessarily belong within the canon of philosophical understanding.
The eventual product and format of my research will be a series of short videos imparting practical information and advice for everyday people navigating this area. I just know it’s going to be difficult to reduce some of these issues into a bite-sized form with tangible takeaways (rather than just meandering commentary, like this blog), so I’ll try to include many links in YouTube descriptions for further research.
Topic areas I’ve whittled my research down to are the following:
- Navigating a new privacy: Ownership, data and surveillance
- The ethics of free stuff: Intellectual property
- Minimise harm: Gender, sexuality and porn
- E-citizenship: Sillos, algorithms and democracy
In my next blog, I’ll be summarising my research in these areas, and detailing more on my digital artefact. Stay tuned!