Let me preface this by saying I’m neither an ethicist nor a moral philosopher. I’m also not a research scientist or technical whiz-kid. I have no particular credentials that should lend any metaphysical weight to the opinions presented here. Think of me as an ethics enthusiast, an amateur futurist, and, above all, a lover of all things science fiction. In particular, I love stories that look at our world and how technology will inevitably influence our values and morals and, ultimately, our view of humanity itself. I explore all of these in my upcoming novel, Re-Coil (available for purchase 3 March from Titan Books), but when SciFiNow offered an opportunity to explore them in a less fictional format, I had to jump at it.
Technology has long been one of the defining characteristics of society, so much so that we tend to name entire epochs based on the technology in use. We have the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age, all named for how tools and weapons – among the earliest forms of technology – were made. They gave way to the Agricultural and Industrial Ages, both technological systems that changed the world. Now, we live in the Information (and its corresponding misinformation) Age. Of course, I’m simplifying things… there are innumerable other archaeological and scientific classifications for time periods, but the point remains: technology does, and always has, defined society.
That thought has always fascinated me. It makes sense – one of the things that sets humanity apart is our ability to develop and employ technology, and the complexity of our societies has increased right alongside the complexity of the technologies that underlay them. But technology doesn’t just shape the structure of our society; I’d argue that is has a definable impact on the underlying values, the moral and ethical norms that help us define right from wrong. In fact, to some degree, I’d say that technology frees us to be more ethical beings… at least over a long enough time horizon.
When it comes to writing science fiction, authors tend to project technology into a more dystopic worldview. Depending on the type of sci-fi you’re reading, the reasons behind that could range from things as complex as using technology as a tool for social commentary to something as mundane as the fact that utopia is boring. After all, conflict drives drama, and drama is important in good story telling. In my first series, The New Lyons Sequence, a cyberpunk-noire kind of thing, cloning was a commonplace technology and clones were considered less-than-human. They were disposable, relegated to the dirtiest of jobs and bereft of anything resembling rights. While this brought up several questions around the ethics of cloning human beings, the central themes were more around the idea of othering, the seemingly pervasive need for humans to divide each other into groups and then declare that one group was superior to the other. But one of the underlying premises was the idea that as technology advances, it becomes harder to ‘other’ people based on solely superficial characteristics. Racism, sexism, and so forth are a long way from dead, but the progress that has been made on those fronts is undeniable. That progress is owed, at least in part, to technology.
At the macro level, technology influences our ethics and values in two primary ways: it makes the world smaller and it forces us to acknowledge that there are fewer differences between people than we might otherwise think. While the adage goes ‘familiarity breeds contempt’, the truth is, it’s a lot harder to hate someone when you have a chance to talk to them. It’s a lot harder to think of everyone in a particular group as the same when most of us have access to vast libraries of videos, music, writings, and other content from the most diverse population of creators at any point in human history. Content, it’s worth noting, that is direct from the creator and not put through any kind of filter (okay… that’s wishful thinking, but fewer filters than any other form of content delivery to this point in history). While the ease of spreading ideas and culture can certainly create negative effects (radicalisation and recruitment into extremist groups being among the best examples), it also breaks down social and cultural barriers and shines a light on how similar we all, ultimately, are. That recognition inevitably pushes us into a more ethical framework (in the long run – short term, things always get messy).
Technology also forces ethical thought forward by creating situations that make us re-evaluate basic premises like our right to privacy or our ability to parent our children as we see fit. Most would agree that parents have a right to know the whereabouts of their kids, but we now have the capability of tracking that down to a few dozen centimeters, almost anywhere in the world. Is it okay to literally track your child’s every movement, every moment of the day? As children, do they have the right to consent (or not) to such monitoring? As imaging technology improves and our own movements are tracked and stored and assessed, carefully categorised and weighed, and then packaged for resale to marketing and political analysis firms, does our understanding of privacy in the public space need to evolve? Our online behaviors are tracked to a degree that very few realise and, to some extent, politically weaponised. Should we accept this as an inevitable consequence of technology or regulate these types of behaviours so that the profit motive is greatly reduced and the ethical ‘oughts’ incentivised? As we move ever closer to ‘panopticon’ the need to construct an ethical and moral structure with which to answer these questions grows. As that need grows, so too does the pressure to actually do something about it, and the world changes, just a little bit.
These are just a few of the (less controversial) ethical questions that technology has posed in recent years. There are other, far more ‘hot button’ topics that I’ve intentionally avoided because the urgency or fervor behind a particular issue isn’t really the point of this essay. Rather, I hope that this entirely-not-academic article has given you a little bit of a pause to think about the various technology we have today and how it is changing society, not just in how we interact with one another, but in how we should or ought to interact with one another.
If you want to see my take on the ethics of things like identity, immortality, and corporate greed, then be sure to check out Re-Coil.
Re-Coil will be available for purchase on 3 March from Titan books.