Discoveries in basic science decades ago have made available sophisticated technologies to billions of people around the world. As many people have noted, many of us carry around devices more powerful than all the electronic gear in the Saturn moon rocket capsule.
The technological changes applying those scientific discoveries were catalyzed by a culture of entrepreneurship. In this country the most obvious examples of this lie in Silicon Valley. Failing fast, quick prototyping, agile focus on the market, seeking disruption – all of these catch phrases underlay an environment that nurtured unrivaled innovation.
Recent events, however, have revealed a weakness in the environment that created much of the technology that surrounds us daily. It was the hope of many innovators that they were building a world that democratized access to knowledge, reduced the cost of entry of economic enterprises, and linked people together in enriching ways. In essence, this was the key to flattening the earth, in Friedman’s terms. The dominance of the nation state as arbiter of culture and laws would diminish and be replaced by a ubiquitously available set of tools that permit the whole world to form mutually valuable social, political, and economic ties.
A cursory inspection of recent media reports about new technology, however, highlights a different view – cyberbullying; use of the Internet to support criminal activity; the very existence of something called “the dark web;” microphone recording of personal activities by Alexa; control over internet-based information flows in autocratic regimes; active disinformation attacks via bots controlled by another country; cyberwarfare unleashed. It isn’t clear how many of these outcomes were anticipated at the founding moments of these technologies.
Thus, many begin to question what these technologies are doing to the fabric of society. Do we know and interact with our neighbors less frequently? Does the perceived distance between us and others on the web encourage us to be less friendly, engage in harsher language, or disclose the selfish side of our natures? Are the generations coming into adulthood, having experienced the internet and mobile communication from birth, less interpersonally engaged, less capable or needing of deep long-lasting relationships? Do predictive analytics privilege ties among homogeneous groups at the cost of ties to heterogeneous groups? Are we constantly connected but ironically less close to one another?
All of these questions have reminded humanity once again that actions can rarely, if ever, be value-free. One can evade explicit articulation of the underlying values of a platform design, but they will inevitably manifest themselves. Human designers make decisions. The values underlying these decisions can be made explicit or not. The values will either be made obvious at the design stage, or they will become obvious at the execution stage.
It seems clear that Georgetown has a special opportunity here. The intellectual resources of Georgetown and the mission of educating women and men for others give the institution a special obligation to act at this moment in history. We can help provide a conceptual framework that refocuses attention of use of technology for the common good. We can develop ethical guidelines that could assist developers at the design stage to make explicit underlying values of platform design. We can help articulate user agreements that clearly inform users of costs and benefits of agreement. We can push the frontier of tools and algorithms to help protect privacy and make transparent risks of privacy breeches. We can lead in the use of high-dimensional data to promote social justice. We can help answer the questions of a developer about how they should design and use technology when they seek a more just world.