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

5.13 The final Act

In Act 3, Dan and Ned are back in Ned's flat and Ned is showing extreme signs of neurosis and paranoia. Dan can no longer bear Ned's rather dark and erratic behaviour, and he grabs the conversation by suddenly pouring out all the overwhelmingly negative aspects of his life as a dentist, father and lover. Some people might say that ethics is about how to live a ‘good’ life and, clearly, Dan needs a change. He recognises he is not leading a ‘good’ life. He knows all the things that are preventing him from having a ‘good’ life but he is trapped, not physically, but by a collection of social constraints that he cannot shed. So, for Dan, the social constraints are not necessarily ‘good’ but, on the whole, ‘bad’ because he is trapped by those constraints. If we are considering ethics, we need to consider only material benefit, necessarily, but also social psychological benefit.

In a way Dan ‘caves in’ and he exposes his brother in a scene of extraordinary intimacy. Brooks then goes out to Tuscany to see Ned, but there is that wonderful scene of deprivation and, ultimately, Ned comes around to seeing Brooks’ point of view. But the point is that Dan ‘caves in’ and, by doing so, he is ultimately, terribly disloyal to everybody. Perhaps he starts out a bit like that, when all he values is material riches. He does not really have a strong position, except the goal to make money, and in this final scene we begin to see that, actually, he has discovered that there are all sorts of things that his continuous struggle for wealth has wrecked.

There are actually a number of interesting sentences that I have not picked out. One of them is when Ned comes out with a phrase which he attributes to Brooks and says, ‘Everybody thinks they're doing the right thing.’ This is a kind of indicator to us all, I believe, that it is worthwhile, every once in a while, reflecting on whether you are doing the right thing or not. And right at the end, of course, the conversation shifts from Ned's work and he reaches out for the solace of his family. Work has ceased to be his raison d’être. He speculates about using his talents in other ways and suggests he might make toys. But he doesn't sound very confident about that and actually seeks assurance about his capability, or, perhaps, the approval of such a project, from his brother, Dan. This speech by Ned actually outlines the ethical situation of technologists so it is worth unpacking a little.

Ned makes a number of statements. He says, ‘The engineer's prime task is to make a machine’ – or I guess the technology – ‘as effective as possible.’ That is the ‘duty’ of the engineer; that is the task. I think most of the developers I've met would agree that that is their job, that they need to make this ‘thing’ effective, the best technology they can. Then Ned introduces the artist's imperative to discover something, and that is an imperative partly because it gratifies the artist if they discover something, and the audience might well be gratified by what the artist presents. But, of course, art also has the potential to transform the way we see things and so bring about changes to the way we live our lives.

So we've got these two things. The developer has a task and the outcome of this task has the potential to change the way we see things. All of this is within the developer's enterprise, which also has the capability to make and distribute what has been discovered or made effective. Therein lies the big issue. You can have all sorts of bright ideas but, actually, if you make something and distribute it, then you affect many people's lives.

Ned also talks about how technology can come into conflict with personal morality, which I take to mean the morality that is applied outside of the technical task, the kind of every day morality that might be deployed in dealings with your friends or your family. So, as a developer and artist, Ned has come to realise that, once the potentially damaging technology is moved from his development laboratories, it enters a world where he has little or no authority. This generates the clash when the technology, in fulfilling its function, may destroy something that you might well value profoundly.

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