New technology has enormous potential to link people, break down cultural barriers and provide quick access to information from around the globe.
But it also opens the way for information terrorism, warped notions of justice and a shifting kind of ethics in which people define right and wrong to suit their own needs, a noted author said Wednesday.
“With people spending time alone, in their homes, with their computers, there’s a danger that the sense of participation in one’s community can be eroded,” said Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics.
Kidder, author of several books and former Christian Science Monitor columnist, will speak on the ethical challenge of the new technology tonight at Whitworth College.
Sponsored in part by the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute, Kidder’s talk starts at 7:30 p.m. at Whitworth’s Music Building.
“The positive side of technology is apparent,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “We’re now able to be in contact with so many people quickly. The old barriers won’t be there anymore.”
But he’s concerned that the way people communicate will allow for slippery notions of right and wrong, ethical shortcuts and outright selfserving abuse.
“Look at talk radio. So often, the anonymous nature of the way people communicate there allows for lying, distortion and verbal attacks. It’s a kind of information terrorism” with truth losing out in the end, he said.
The same impact might be felt as more people form cybercommunities - groups of computer users who communicate by keyboard and modem - but never meet faceto-face.
“Ethics only matter in communities. If people see themselves as isolated, atomistic selves, they have no obligation to others,” Kidder said.
He said the late 20th century presents a unique challenge. It’s a time when technology might link us into a global family, or lead to a growth in solitary behavior.
Kidder is not anti-technology. He also insists that those saying technology is creating a world of information haves and have-nots are wrong.
He’s convinced the costs of computers will drop and availability will increase in the next 15 years. “They’ll soon be everywhere in our lives, the way electric motors are now. It won’t be a big deal for schools to have them.”
Kidder began exploring the ethics of technology after visiting Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union three years after the meltdown of a plant’s nuclear core.
He learned that the disaster occurred because two highly trained engineers decided to experiment to see how long a turbine would run after the normal cooling system was stopped.
“They overrode six computer shutdown alerts to do this. They weren’t stupid. They were very smart but something in them had shut down, ethically, that let them take that risk.”
As technical systems grow bigger and more encompassing, he sees other dangers from people acting selfishly, greedily or viciously.
His hope is that people sense the moral risks of technology and focus on ethical concerns.
‘I’m encouraged that while fewer people may be actively involved in a religion, more people seem to be interested in ethics and ethical standards,” he said.