Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences
Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

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Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

3.2 Relationships and ethics

Activity 12

Read the script of the audio play Call Waiting attached below. Jot down some answers to the following questions:

  1. What is valued in the play?

  2. What action is taken?

  3. What is the role of technology?

  4. What are the ethical questions?

Call Waiting [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]



The play is about somebody who is likely to lose their life, so clearly one thing that is valued is human life, although it is not clear that everybody in the play is necessarily interested in that particular person. So what the play does really is show us is a number of relationships. Some of these relationships are highly valued, and some apparently are not. In a way, the play is about the development of those relationships.

It is quite clear, however, that different people have different interests in building those relationships, and they use things like their authority, the trust people have in them and the community that they know to develop those relationships. Words, delivered by a variety of technologies, are the medium that enables relationships between particular partners.

The ethical questions raised revolve around the measures that people take to establish relationships. Also, there are questions related with the conflicts that arise in forming and developing these relationships. Overall, the play illustrates that the ethical analysis of situations must consider networks of relationships. An ethical analysis that restricts its considerations to a single individual's interests or even two interlocutors is not adequate.

A crucial thing about the play is that everything is done with words, with speaking. This illustrates that words have long-lasting effects, which is consistent with Wittgenstein's view of language I introduced in Section 2.3. In a nutshell: through the words, in the end, we have effects on the world. The words spoken affect the relationships in question, relationships affect behaviour, and behaviour affects the world. Relationships are crucial, and they are most commonly manipulated through words. Because words have an effect on the world, they are something we should care about when we are thinking about ethics.

Another thing that the play does is that it shows people using all sorts of technology to communicate. Text messaging, telephones, all sorts of things that we actually take for granted these days. Despite all of this, nobody seems to know anything. Although we've got all these things called information and communication technologies, things that everybody is using to communicate, the play shows that they do not always help. What the technologies do is that they enable relationships between more distant partners, but this, by itself, is not enough. It is interesting that the main character in the play contacts all sorts of people, but she never actually talks to a next door neighbour. From this perspective, the effect of technologies has been to disperse the relationship. The play suggests that, whilst we are building relationships, different people have different interests, and different people want to build different relationships or, perhaps, destroy others, ethical questions arise because of the conflicts that occur in forming relationships.

In the play people are building relationships. For example, Carol, the principal, chooses actually not to develop her relationship with her mother over the incident. What is said and gestured tells us about the value she places on the relationship. On the other hand, the hotel receptionist is patient and polite, and Carol too is patient and polite in dealing with him. This is a rather valuable relationship to Carol because it seems to be the only potential reliable source of help, and she does indeed gain some information. Near the end of the play the HR person comes along, and he clearly has a quite different agenda to Carol's. He wants to get hold of what is on the computer, and she soon realises she is not going to get much help from him. Because of his interests he adopts a rather barren expression, and Carol grows in anger. As a result, when they part their relationship is not a particularly happy one, and it is unlikely to be particularly constructive in the future. So things such as relationships change, and people are encouraged or discouraged to do things as a result.

People are communicating in the play but, ironically, they do not seem to get particularly better informed as a result of all of this. So, perhaps, what they are doing is that they are building relationships that would have a potential to enable them to act in the future, should a possibility arise. The incapacity to act in the situation is a consequence of uncertainty about what was happening in other parts of the world.

I noted above on another interesting point about the play: that people have a collection of high-tech gadgets at their disposal (it is a high tech company, after all). However, all the conversations are hardly ever about technology. Although the technology facilitates relationships, it does not provide a topic of conversation that people want to explore. Interestingly, when the message ‘Help me Phil’ arrives, it adds to the confusion. The images on the expressive medium of television hardly make things any better because they stir up the imagination and add to the range of forebodings. So, here again the technology really has not helped. What it has done is to confuse and to open up for people another range of possibilities that just add to the confusion.

The play also illustrates another point I made earlier in the course, that ethics is not about action, but about preparation for action, about getting ready to act once sufficient knowledge is available. It is about building the authority to act and establishing reliable channels of communication. This is problematic because different players will have different interests that may be in conflict and, hence, wish to establish different kinds of relationships.

Crucially, this problem is not an artefact of drama, nor is it something that arises only in connection with ‘big’, life-changing (or threatening) situations. For an illustration, consider an example taken from the satirical novel The Tin Men by Michael Frayn. The novel is set in an Ethics Department where experiments are carried out to see if a robot will sacrifice itself to save a person. The extract in Box 4 shows what happens after a successful test.

Box 4: Extract from M. Frayn's The Tin Men

The robot Samaritan II came back up to the gantry, winched by crane. …

“Doesn't it look a bit sanctimonious to you?” [Goldwasser] asked Macintosh.

“Aye, … It's a minor defect …”

“But …, if it enjoys sacrificing itself it's not taking an ethical decision…, is it?”

“… why shouldn't it enjoy doing right?”

“But if it's enjoyable it's not self-sacrifice.”

“If a thing is right it's right and if you enjoy it so much the better”

“It may be right. But … it's not ethically interesting!”

(Frayn, 1965, pp. 19–20)

Academic discussions about ethics often ignore everyday circumstances, but these are, more often than not, riddled with ethical assertions. Technologists’ accounts, for example, continually assert what is ‘good’ and approved by their profession. Most of these ethical assertions are not about matters of life and death, but about commonplace actions which, in spite of their banality, can still be judged to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and may (or may not) be a source of disagreement. And my point here, by quoting that, is that an awful lot of things that we do are ethical but they're not particularly interesting. In other words, even if there is agreement and the issue at stake is everyday, it can still be ethical.

In an attempt to reduce bias and uncertainties, technology developers and scientists are taught many of the techniques common to science. However, they do so within a raft of economies. Firstly, there is an attention economy, which implies a limitation on what an individual can absorb and the amount of attention others are willing to pay. There are limits to the authority of individuals. There are limitations on where people can be and at what time they can be there. There are the limitations on the locations and schedules of individuals which imply that no one can be privy to everything that is said. There are also limitations on resources, money, personal and physical energy. Available theories about things are also limited and, importantly, disconnected. Consequently, individuals have a personal archipelago of influences, goals and understandings, and within a technological enterprise these various economies stimulate differences of opinion – differences that lead to discussions and deliberation that arouse a wide range of emotions: frustration, anger, anxiety, elation, pride and so on. All of these emotions may be quickened by clashes of loyalty to the company, the public, family, colleagues and friends. Therefore, we can't avoid emotion when dealing with action and persuading people to act.


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