Ethics of Information Technology Research Paper

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Abstract

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have become very powerful and ubiquitous; thus, they exert profound influences on bioethics. The technologies are also global in nature. In this entry, some of the salient issues in ICTs are discussed, especially as they are related with global bioethics. These are privacy, genetic data-banking, digital divide, intercultural information ethics, and the use of social media. An interesting topic within the emerging field of intercultural information ethics is how the values that are commonly taken to be valid across cultures are to be justified. Obviously they cannot all be justified according to the norms that are familiar with those in the West, but as these norms have become universal, attempts are made to justify them using the vocabularies and thought systems of non-Western cultures, such as that of Buddhism.

Introduction

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have become ubiquitous. Even in a relatively remote corner of the world, the sight of people peering at their smart phones, which are connected to the global Internet, is not uncommon. Smart phones, tablets, notebooks, and desktop PCs have become household items, and many people get connected to one another almost continuously. The amount of information being created and shared among the global network is staggering, so much so that the amount of information being created in the past couple of years exceeds the entire amount of information that has been created since humans began to communicate.

It is therefore not surprising that information technologies have become a very powerful tool. They also have the real potential of creating tangible changes in society, ranging from political landscape to the latest trends in fashion. Many political events, starting from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movements in the USA, and the most recent protests by students in Hong Kong illustrate the power and the creative ways in which the technologies are being used to serve whatever purpose people use them for. In response governments, both democratic and authoritarian ones are also using the technologies either to fight back against terrorist threats or to undermine their people’s desire for freedom of expression. The attempt of the US Government, through the National Security Agency, to gather information about private citizens may originate from the need to protect its own people from the threats, but the trade-off is a violation of their privacy, and one has to always weigh these options to find out the best solution. All these illustrate the very real power that information and communication technologies exert on the world.

Ethics Of Information Technology

“Ethics of information technology” is a collective term denoting the various attempts to reflect on the ethical and social implications of ICTs, which consist of many dimensions. Many terms are also being used, such as “information ethics” and “computer ethics.” Although they share the same basic meanings, information ethics deals more with issues arising from information itself, which is an abstract entity, and computer ethics deals more with issues arising from the impact of computers as a powerful, programmable machine on society. “Ethics of information technology” thus combines the two senses together, since information is mostly created and propagated through computers and their networks. Furthermore, by extension, newer devices such as the mobile phone and the tablet also extend the meaning of “computer” in such a way that these handheld and mobile devices are included in the purview of computer ethics and ethics of information technology too.

Ethics of information technology, in addition, is also closely connected with bioethics. Both are naturally concerned with privacy, for example, as privacy has to do with information, thus making it an important subject matter within both and thus linking the two fields of applied ethics together.

In fact, any issues related to the handling of personal data are where the two fields find themselves on common ground. For example, issues in genetic data banking are a fertile common ground. Data obtained from individuals, such as their DNA or genetic profiles, are usually handled and analyzed using computers, and they are kept in a computer-generated database. When the data are used, they are retrieved through a computer information system, and when an analysis is conducted in order to search for common patterns or any type of susceptibility or profiling, computers are invariably involved. The link can also be seen in bioinformatics, where the computer is used to analyze genetic data. In fact, the success of the sequencing of human genome could not have been possible without the help of very powerful computers. In these cases, the DNA stores vast amount of data and information, something that can be manipulated, stored, shared, and retrieved, much like the other kinds of information. Usually, ethics of information technology and bioethics are distinct fields, consisting of different groups of scholars working on each, with only minimal contact in between; however, with the advent of computerized genetic information analysis and the vast store of databases, this is set to change.

The intersection between ethics of information technology and bioethics also has cultural dimensions. As information and communication technologies span the whole globe, connecting people to one another, medical technologies and biotechnologies have also become truly global. Stores of genetic data have been collected from people from all over the world. It is common nowadays to analyze genetic profiling on a global scale, in order to conduct anthropological research (such as to find out the branching of the human species across time) or clinical research. Hence, ethical analysis of these intersecting issues has to also take into account this global nature. This is so because when the span of research reaches across cultural and religious traditions, there is bound to arise conflicts and misunderstandings due to different beliefs and backgrounds. Since ethics is intimately tied up with these background beliefs, ethical analysis of cross-cultural and transnational research must then be sensitive to intercultural differences too. As a result, scholars in Thailand, for example, have taken up an ethical analysis of genetic privacy through insights obtained from the Buddhist philosophy (e.g., Hongladarom 2009). As both ICTs and biotechnologies spread to all corners of the world, people in various cultural traditions are searching for ways to respond to the ethical challenges that these technologies pose from within their own cultures. This does not necessarily imply that the findings obtained from the respective traditions have to be different. A challenge for intercultural and global ethics is how to find a balance between what different traditions sometime come up and the need for different people to combine with one another in a global solidarity. Issues arising from the mixing of ethics of IT and bioethics are not an exception.

History And Development

Computing has a long history. Humans have used symbolic representations of number in one form or another since ancient times. The abacus is perhaps the oldest form of such representation and manipulation that works as an aid to calculation. However, the development of modern computer, which started during World War II in an effort to break the German secret coded messages, greatly accelerated the use of computing technology. Today, many household devices have computing technology embedded in order to enhance their functionalities and power. The smart phone, for example, works not only as a mobile phone but also as a camera, a recording device, a calendar, a personal notebook, a word processor, an email reader, a personal health coach, and so on. The trend in computing development is clearly that of miniaturization, with today’s smart phones being at the forefront. It is often said that, according to Moore’s law, where the computing power doubles every 2 years, today’s smart phones are much more powerful than the room-sized computer that sent men to the moon in the late 1960s. The growing computing power is also being harnessed to tackle problems in biomedical sciences, such as the sequencing of the human genome. Recent services such as those offered by private companies to analyze the genetic data of the members of the public also make extensive use of computer databases and other related technologies. Thus, there is a clear convergence of information technologies on the one hand and biomedical technologies on the other.

In this entry, a number of issues that lie at where ethics of IT and bioethics share a common ground through an intercultural perspective are explored. The issues covered are privacy, which itself comes forward in many guises and dimensions, genetic data banking, digital divide, intercultural information ethics, and social media and bioethics.

Privacy And Genetic Databanking: Intercultural Perspective

Ethical issues in genetic databanking concern how to protect the privacy of the individuals whose genetic data have been obtained. Concerns have been raised about the possibility of misusing the data in such a way that discrimination based on genetic profiling could occur. For example, if a population is found to be genetically close to one another (such as those in Iceland and in similar cases) and if traits in their genetic makeup are found to contain some beneficial properties, it is likely that the population will be exploited in one way or another in order to make use of those properties. In this case benefit sharing and a scheme that would benefit everyone, one that is agreed upon by everyone involved, would be necessary. The issue has much to do with intercultural issues because in case where the population in question is those from outside of the developed world, the likelihood of their being exploited would be much higher.

In these cases information technology is involved much more than only as a tool for analyzing the collected genetic data. The technology has the potential to function as a means by which each member of the developing societies becoming empowered. Information shared via the network has the potential to serve as a tool by means of which the people learn about their rights and their roles in the global community. Here the digital divide issue, a long-standing problem within information and computer ethics, becomes relevant because access to the technology, both in terms of physical infrastructure and the capability of using them effectively, is crucial in bringing the needed information to each of the people involved. Furthermore, information technology itself has an added power of enabling algorithms that protect the privacy of each individual who participates in the genetic project. Not only does information technology give the people more power, it also helps create a more secure environment through measures such as encryption and other means of protection of personal data.

Another dimension of interculturality in this issue concerns how arguments in support of the privacy of genetic data are justified. Hongladarom (2007, 2009) has proposed an argument based on Buddhist teaching in support of measures to protect the privacy of the individuals who participate in genetic databanking projects. As Buddhist philosophy does not recognize that individuals has an inner core of a self that is metaphysically objective, that is, that exists independently by itself, there is a problem on how the privacy of individuals could be justified since privacy in these cases is by nature one that belongs to a particular individual. According to Hongladarom, the fact that Buddhist philosophy does not accept that such a self-exist is not relevant to a justification of the privacy of an individual because privacy should be more effectively justified through referring to its role in promoting the ideals of democracy and limit of government power or the power of corporations over the individual. One can argue pragmatically that privacy is needed in these attempts to protect the democratic ideals without relying on the metaphysical theory of an inner core self. Hongladarom’s argument is one attempt by a philosopher from outside of the west to justify the protection of privacy based on a tradition of non-Western thought.

Hongladarom’s research on the justification of privacy is an example of how a system of thought based on another culture that is different from the mainstream Western views and justifies privacy. We can view his attempt as an illustration of a truly global information ethics where the theory underlying ethical judgments come not only from the wellspring of Western thought but from the East too. Certainly, other cultures can present their own philosophical systems which can provide a theory that purports to justify privacy in their own terms. Apart from Buddhism and the West, Chinese philosophy, especially Confucianism, is another dominant system of thought which can well serve as such a foundation. In fact, such an attempt is needed in the world today due to the expansion of China’s influence on the world stage. If we agree that privacy is a valuable concept that should be enjoyed not only by Buddhists or the inhabitants of the West but also by all human beings who live in the same global environment, certainly a system of justification of privacy based on the Confucian thought is needed. Lü’s paper is thus a very important first step in this regard. Moreover, not only is Confucianism-based ethical analysis important, theories based on Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions are all equally important for the same reason too.

Digital Divide

The digital divide is a gap between those who enjoy the benefits of information technology and those who do not. There are many dimensions to the divide; for example, there are divides between different age groups, genders, urban and rural regions, and levels of education, and sometimes these groups intersect with one another, as when the female group, for example, contains both members who are highly educated, thus able to benefit more from the technology, and those that are not so fortunate. The awareness that there is a divide presupposes that access to ICTs is a good thing that should be shared as much as possible to all members of the society. However, many have voiced the view that information technology in itself might not bring about the kind of desired goals of development that would be truly beneficial to the people. Some, such as Peter Hershock (1999), even view information technology as a tool for the “colonization of consciousness,” i.e., a tool used by the hegemonic sector of the (often) global society to change the mindset of the people all over the world to think the same way, such as when they all prefer Western fast food and gadgets such as today’s latest smart phones. However, despite criticisms such as Hershock’s and the one advanced by Shirley Turkle (2012) of people “being alone” together, it is widely acknowledged that products of ICTs have become necessary as a tool for development, especially in rural areas where the need for information and linking together is crucial.

The digital divide is not merely a matter of gaining access to the technology. Even if a group has access to the technology, if they lack the necessary skills or if they are not “literate” as today’s “digital citizens,” then the benefit is minimal. In many developing countries, this is a serious problem, and the lack of adequate IT literacy results in school children only using the Internet connected computers to chat with their friends on frivolous matters or to engage in sexual activities when they are still very young. Thus, it is possible that groups which have access to the technology nonetheless can be at the “have-not” side of the digital divide if they lack the necessary skills. These skills, furthermore, do not merely consist in knowing how to operate the computer, as these children apparently do. But they lack the skills so as to make the Internet directly relevant to their lives and their prospects of getting ahead in life. Lack of these skills could also result in reverse problems such as addiction and, ironically, isolation which arise when the subject is overexposed to the Internet and does not know how to limit its use.

Another important dimension of the digital divide concerns its global aspect. The global digital divide is the gap between countries that are able to enjoy the benefits of information technology and those that are not. This is the largest dimension of the digital divide, one that spans the whole world. Here the ethics of the digital divide merges with the ethics of global justice and global equality. Some countries such as Finland and South Korea enjoy almost one hundred percent Internet penetration, while many, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, are on the opposite side of the scale. This global disparity is a cause for concern especially considering that access to information and communication technologies is crucial for development (if certain other factors are also obtained, as previously discussed). The global digital divide also intersects with issues in bioethics because lack of access to information appears to correlate with the lack of access to adequate health service. Newer uses of the technology, such as telemedicine where the doctor watches and communicates with the patient remotely through the information network, can be helpful, but still this requires the presence of the physical infrastructure. Moreover, the lack of adequate medical supplies still haunts the remote areas even though they can communicate with the doctor. The online presence of the doctor, then, by no means guarantees adequate health-care service. Everything needs to be in place, in a kind of an ecosystem, in order for the technology to be of real benefit to the poor people.

Intercultural Information Ethics

Recently, a new subdiscipline has emerged from within information ethics, which in itself is an attempt to reflect on the ethical implications of the information broadly construed. As information and its technologies have spread to other countries outside of the West, scholars in the area have recognized a need for the kind of reflection that takes into consideration the cultural aspects of information ethics, hence a subdiscipline known as “intercultural” information ethics, a term introduced by Rafael Capurro (2007b, 2008). Privacy is again an important concern in the subfield. There are investigations into how various cultures view privacy, what their attitudes are, and so on. Apart from these more anthropological considerations, there is also the normative question of how the notions of privacy according to the various cultures are justified. In Asia, the general attitude is that the individual derives his or her own identity through their relation to the community; hence, privacy tends more to be a group matter – it is often the group who decides the privacy of the whole group – than an individual one as is prevalent in the West. This has a rather strong implication toward how the Japanese culture views privacy. Similar studies have also been conducted in other Asian cultures, such as those by Lü (2005) for Chinese and by Kitiyadisai (2005) for Thai cultures respectively. However, studies of non-Western information ethics are not limited only to Asia. Recently, Capurro and others have published a landmark collection of studies dealing with African information ethics (Capurro et al. 2007a). In this volume, many African scholars present their views and findings, which show strongly the African contribution to the global and intercultural information ethics.

Intercultural information ethics has the same concern at the theoretical level with global bioethics. They are both concerned with how the universality of norms could be justified across cultures. How could the different senses of and attitudes toward privacy, for example, be analyzed in such a way that the right sense and the right way of justifying emerge that is valid across cultures? When cultures invariably interact as they are right now, how could we find the system of justification that should be agreed to by all? In one of the few studies of an indigenous African philosophy and the concept of privacy, Olinger, Britz, and Olivier look at the traditional African concept ubuntu, which roughly translates as “all in one,” and privacy. The philosophy of ubuntu, according to Olinger and others, appears to result in the individualistic tendency of the Western understanding of privacy becoming less emphasized. But in putting the emphasis on the communal nature of individuals, this does not necessarily imply that privacy can be totally eliminated because communality still presupposes some form of individuality (because there still has to be a communion of some things together), which implies that privacy is still valid in one way or another (Olinger et al. 2005). Nakada and Tamura (2005), for their part, also show the communal nature of privacy in the Japanese culture, though they also argue that the Japanese notion of privacy has changed significantly and the modern notion is much different from the traditional one. This change is due to Japan having been integrated closely into the global community. The same is also happening in other non-Western cultures including African ones. However, the integration engenders not only an integration of non-Western conceptions into those of the West, but the Western conceptions themselves are thereby challenged too. What is happening is then not a hegemonic absorption of one culture by another more powerful culture, but a destruction of boundaries and close interaction among cultures in order to find the best solution that is agreed to by everyone involved. What is particularly important here is that the solution here would not take place automatically, but requires constant input and conscious deliberation from all stakeholders. Nonetheless, a consensus appears to emerge in intercultural information ethics that neither the absolutist model, where one culture completely dominates all others, nor the relativist one, where there is no attempt to justify norms across cultures at all, is acceptable. The kind of interchange and interaction among cultures alluded to earlier would not have been possible if either the two extremes are allowed.

Social Media And Bioethics

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter have really become ubiquitous not only in the Western world but also elsewhere. A large number of ethical issues arise from this very extensive use of social media, and many of them have to do with bioethics. For example, many posts in Facebook and Twitter feature advertisements of fake medicines promising to cure all kinds of illnesses including cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Many promise the cure for sexual impotence in men and weight loss and slim figures in women. The issue here may involve cultural factors as Asians seem to be more receptive of information posted on social media than Westerners. Medical and nursing schools in Thailand routinely organize workshops and seminars on the ethics of social media use by health-care professionals. The need for such programs arose from incidents where health-care professionals post information about their patients on their social media pages, and the information then was shared by the network of friends, creating a situation where the privacy of the patient is much compromised. As a result, the programs aim at educating health-care professionals about what is and is not acceptable to be shared online.

Thus, an important issue here also concerns privacy. As the incident of health-care professionals being rather careless in sharing their information shows, people tend to be more open and trusting when they are on the social media network. Perhaps they think that the platform is a rather private one where they share information with their trusted close friends only. However, it is easy for the information to be shared further by those in the network, so that the information leaks to the outside world. Some health-care professionals casually talk about their work with a patient, but they do that in such a way that the identity of the patient can be guessed. This obviously breaches the confidentiality between the professional and the patient.

Conclusion

Convergence of technologies have resulted in technologies in diverse fields coming together and applications of those technologies coming more and more to take place in common areas. The applications of information and communication technologies and biomedical technologies clearly illustrate this. A comprehensive survey of global bioethics thus cannot fail to address the problems addressed by the use of information and communication technologies in health and biomedical areas. The tools used by philosophers can be useful in this regard since they are general enough to enable one who surveys the areas where the two types of technologies intersect so that the resulting analysis encompasses both fields at once. Issues such as privacy, inequality of access, and intercultural concerns actually span both technologies and their applications. Further research could then explicate all these entangled conceptual complexities in such a way as to provide us with better understanding of the issues.

Bibliography :

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