Ethical issues of information and communication technologies (ICTs) are important because they can have significant effects on human liberty, happiness, and people’s ability to lead a good life. They are also of functional interest because they can determine whether technologies are used and whether their positive potential can unfold. For these reasons, policy makers are interested in finding out what these issues are and how they can be addressed. The best way of creating ICT policy that is sensitive to ethical issues pertain to being proactive in addressing such issues at an early stage of the technology life cycle. The present paper uses this position as a starting point and discusses how knowledge of ethical aspects of emerging ICTs can be gained. It develops a methodology that goes beyond established futures methodologies to cater for the difficult nature of ethical issues. The authors outline how the description of emerging ICTs can be used for an ethical analysis.
If we knew the consequences of novel technologies, then we would be in a better position to leverage or address them. Expected and unexpected positive results could be supported and strengthened while problems could be avoided or mitigated. An important aspect of the consequences of technologies is related to moral perceptions and ethical norms. In the area of information and communication technologies (ICTs), prominent examples of such issues are those of privacy, intellectual property, security and access. But how can we know these consequences?
This question is of central importance to policy makers who wish to be proactive in addressing moral and ethical issues. Despite its importance, it is an exceptionally difficult question to answer. The combination of uncertainty of the future, conceptual issues surrounding the very term “technology”, the potential infinity of issues and the problems of contextualising abstract issues combine to render ethics of emerging technologies all but intractable. And yet, giving up in the face of these problems is no viable solution either. Not exploring ethics of emerging technologies constitutes one possible choice in dealing with them. And this is arguably the worst possible choice. It is arguably the worst choice because leaving potential ethical issues of emerging technologies unattended to does not make the problems go away but may only exacerbate them when the technologies finally come to fruition. Therefore, finding ways of trying to deal with them even though they may not be conclusive helps to initiate and potentially find a solution to for some if not all ethical problems.
This leaves scholars with an interest in ethics and emerging ICTs in the position of having to come up with workable solutions to finding out what possible issues may be, knowing full well that any result they produce may be more than fallible. While there has been some attention to the problem of ethics of emerging technologies (Sollie & Düwell, 2009), there is little in terms of practical guidance on how to identify emerging technologies and the ethical issues they raise. The present paper outlines a methodological approach that fills this gap in knowledge and allows a robust, transparent and rigorous method of identifying the ethics of emerging ICTs. It starts out by describing how the technologies themselves can be identified. This includes a discussion of the different problems such future oriented research faces. On the basis of the exploration of these issues, the paper then presents the different steps of the suggested methodology. This leads to the question of the ethics analysis of the emerging ICTs. The conclusion will reflect on the limitations of this approach and further research.
While the paper concentrates on information and communication technologies, it is of relevance to other aspects of the field of technoethics. Where technoethics is the interdisciplinary field that addresses moral and ethical concerns arising due to the social use of technologies, questions of emerging technologies and possible policy responses are relevant. In addition, the field of ICT is increasingly linked to most other socially relevant technologies such as nanotechnology or biotechnology to the point where many scholars speak of the convergence of technologies. An indication of this increasing interlinking was the recent 2009 conference of the Society for Technology and Philosophy which was dedicated to the topic of these converging technologies (see: http://www.utwente.nl/ceptes/spt2009/). Conceptual and methodological questions arising from ICTs are thus a core concern that the novel field of technoethics needs to come to grips with.