Editorial: Ethical reflections on the virtual frontier

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  • Ethics and Information Technology 2: 12, 2000. 2000 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

    Editorial: Ethical reflections on the virtual frontier

    In post-industrialized societies our everyday activ-ities and social interactions are increasingly mediatedby information technology. The economic imperativeof limited resources and unlimited needs, creates anunprecedented incentive to seek absolute efficiency and information technology has become the mostobvious route to this imperative. Not only efficiencybut also the sheer possibilities presented by infor-mation technology seem to be turning our futureinto one saturated by information technology. Therisks presented by the millennium bug reminded usof the way in which information technology silentlyembedded itself into every dimension of our dailyexistence. There is every reason to believe thatour interaction with information technology wouldincrease rather than decrease. In the first four papersof this issue this transformation (or not) from thenatural to the virtual comes under scrutiny and ethicalreflection.

    In the Socratic tradition of the philosophicaldialogue Raymond Kolcaba presents two interestingand challenging dialogues. In the first The loss ofthe world Kolcabas characters Becket Geist, FortranMcCyborg and Nonette Naturski debate what theysee as the move of humanity from the natural worldinto the virtual world. The lead character, BecketGeist, opens the debate with a monologue in whichhe argues that we are losing our world as a matter ofcourse. This possibility is for him not only disturbingbut also inevitable. His chief opponent, and cham-pion of the virtual world, is a cyborg called FortranMcCyborg. In the debate Nonette Naturski acts asthe moderate voice that champions naturalism, conser-vation of humanist ideals, and prudent conclusions.In the ensuing dialogue they examine eight counter-arguments to Geists vision of an encroaching virtualworld. In the next dialogue Angelic Machines, whichfollows on from the first, the same characters take onthe topic of machine autonomy. Becket and NonetteNaturski argue that Fortrans actions are not chosenby him and lack the freedom caused by deliberatedesire. With these attempts to reduce Fortrans status,Fortran ups the ante by arguing for yet a higher status that he is an angel. The dialogue closes with therealization that the conversation which denied Fortranautonomous status presupposed it on some level. The

    issues raised by these dialogues are central to ourcontemporary ethical reflection on the virtual. Losingour natural world, if indeed the case, uncovers many ofthe assumptions that now support our ethical impera-tives. For example, our notions of justice are deeplyembedded in the natural world. It seems that wecontinue to value the natural world and especiallyhuman nature above and beyond that which is madeor constructed by humans. It is indeed this anthro-pocentric tendency that Luciano Floridi critiqued inhis paper in volume 1. It is therefore very prudent toreflect on the moral status of the cyborg. When doesthe cyborg, and other constructed realities, move intothe realm of moral worth?

    In their paper Charles Harvey and Carol Zibellcontinue with this theme of our relation with theconstructed world by reflecting on the way in whichwe construct ourselves in highly organized syntheticsites such as Disney World. They aim to showhow certain tendencies of the self are enhanced andhindered by such technologically organized places.They use the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyis toshow how these technologically organized places canbe used to intensify experience and organize the self.They argue that Disney World can be consideredas the example, par excellence, of a synthetic sitethat promotes ordered experience via self-shrinkage.They also reflect on the problems and possibilities ofhuman life lived in a world that could increasingly bedescribed as an archipelago of synthetic sites. Thispaper is of particular import for our ethical reflectionon synthetic sites such as computer games, MUDs,chat rooms, and so forth.

    The Levinasian scholar Richard Cohen brings thetheme of the foregoing papers together with a moreexplicit ethical reflection on the role of informationtechnology in transforming our world. In pursuing hisLevinasian reflection he critiques the work of SherryTurkle and Lucas Introna (also editor of this journal)on the subject. For him the central issue is the moralstatus we attribute to information technology. Heargues that Turkle wants to read into information tech-nology an endless possibility for expression and play.She celebrates the computer age as the embodiment ofdifference as articulated by Derrida. However, forher this is no longer just a theory, one can now live a

  • 2 EDITORIAL

    virtual life on the screen. For her information tech-nology liberates the traditional located and weighteddown self for the freedom of multiple emergingplastic selves. In contrast to her he argues that Intronacondemns information technology for increasing thedistance between flesh and blood people. For Intronathe mediation of the face-to-face relation between realpeople by information technology will alienate indi-viduals from the social immediacy productive of moralobligations and responsibilities. In his paper Cohenargues that both of these positions adhere to the samemistake of providing a meta-interpretation of infor-mation technology whereby it is considered to becapable of radically transforming the human condi-tion. In contrast he argues that information technologyis simply a very advanced instrument, a tool that isin itself morally neutral. For him information tech-nology like all instruments, offer itself equally to bothgood and evil use as such he argues that the meta-interpretation of information technology as presentedin the work of Turkle and Introna simply reads toomuch into the technology itself. The issue raised byCohens paper is very important for the ongoing debateabout the ethical consequences of information tech-nology. Is technology a mere tool or does a partic-ular technology reveal or predispose us to particularviews of the world and not others. Is a more meta-interpretation justified? Landon Winner has arguedpersuasively that artifacts have an implicit politics but do artifacts also have an implicit ontology? Wehope the papers in this issue will contribute to thisdebate.

    With their paper Alison Adam and JacquelineOfori-Amanfo provide a feminist perspective on thecomputer ethics discourse. They argue that feministethics can offer a productive alternative reading ofthe ethical dilemmas produced by information tech-nology, in particularly to inform issues of (in)equalityand power. They describe the rise of feminist ethics inrelation to feminist theory in general and then focuson the ethic of care in the work of Gilligan and

    others. They use this perspective to critique someempirical studies on gender and business and computerethics. They show how the ethics of care is able tooffer an alternative reading of the hacking as a moraldilemma. Although the paper is somewhat tentativein its analysis and conclusions it is hoped that itwill encourage other feminist ethicists to focus theirattention to the particular problems raised by informa-tion technology. It is important for productive debate,reflection and policy that we also listen to this differentvoice especially since it may wake us up to thedanger of merely accepting the implicit status quo.

    The final paper of this issue is an extensive reviewof information or intellectual property and its ethicalimplications. In their paper Tom Lipinski and JohannesBritz start by reviewing the basic concepts and recentdevelopments in intellectual property ownership in theUnited States. They argue that there is a fundamentalethical issue at stake in balancing ownership andaccess as present in the intellectual property debate.They argue that any right of control over the informa-tion adopted as an incentive to encourage creationand distribution of intellectual property ought to besubservient to an overriding need to ensure access tothe information. However, they argue that recent trendsin the legislative process demonstrate that the accessprinciple has not always been paramount. They argueand demonstrate a trend that allows a proprietarianismbias to dominate. In conclusion they propose severalprinciples to assist adjudicators and policy makers inreaffirming the basic purpose of the intellectual prop-erty law to benefit the public at large. Although thispaper is quite substantial in length it will serve as avaluable resource in a debate that will surely becomemuch more dominant as the information economygrows.

    Lucas D. IntronaLondon School of Economics and

    Political Science

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