Why ethics matters when implementing new technology

By: Sarah Webber
Date: September, 2013
File under: Articles

We take it for granted that we can design websites, apps and software to support or encourage specific behaviours and activities. But in fact any new technology can bring about behavioural changes for individual users, or more widespread changes at the community or societal level. In some cases, these changes are unexpected, or even undesirable.

To avoid unwelcome outcomes, it’s important to consider ethical implications when planning and evaluation of proposed technologies. Understanding users and their context plays an important role here.

Ethics of technology for behaviour change

Health-oriented mobile apps such as MyFitnessPal and Nike+ are a good example of a technology which explicitly aims to support users in behaviour change. They commonly encourage positive behaviours such as healthy eating or higher exercise levels. However, the fact that they target ‘good’ behaviours doesn’t mean they should be exempt them from ethical scrutiny. Some users and commentators are beginning to wonder whether we are becoming addicted to fitness tracking apps such as LoseIt1 or similar tracking devices2. It’s important to explore in depth who will use them, when and how, to be able to address difficult questions. Could such an app be misused by the uninformed, and what might the consequences be? Could it be exploited by the unscrupulous? What about if it’s used to excess?

Societal ethics in a state of flux

Ethical concerns are also being raised with regards to the broader, societal behaviour changes which have been brought about by new, always on communication technologies. New ways of getting and sharing information, and of keeping in touch with friends and colleagues, have driven a new need to keep connected. To get a sense of the profound changes in social behaviour, you only have to watch friends socialising (how long can they leave their phones out of sight?) or holidaymakers choosing a restaurant at a tourist spot (how often does a solid WiFi connection win out over a picturesque view?). There is a sense that there is a subtle shift in what we value as a society. Are we starting to crave connectedness for its own sake, rather than as a channel for meaningful, human relationships? What will this mean for the way people behave towards one another and respond to our instinctive need for interpersonal contact?

Meanwhile, social and sharing platforms have been the centre of much ethical concern, having provided a platform for unintentional public disclosure, and antisocial behaviour on a scale which was not previously possible. A potential employer can today evaluate a candidate on the basis of party photographs on Facebook: private-sphere information which would not previously have been accessible to them. Social networks have encouraged us to be more liberal with our personal information, photos and history, shifting our expectations and behaviours regarding personal privacy. The ethical implications of such changes to societal norms are not yet fully understood.

Understanding users as a basis for ethical design

It might be that we can never have complete prior understanding of the impact an innovation will have, because of the complex interplay between technology and real-world environments. However, to fulfil the moral responsibility of the designer, there is a need to understand the potential impact as best we can. For this, we need an in-depth understanding of the people who might use the technology, their values, motives and aims. We need a solid understanding of the context and social world they operate in, existing pressures and tensions. With this enhanced knowledge of user and context, we have a better chance of understanding the potential impacts of new innovations, and of avoiding undesirable and unanticipated outcomes.




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