The Contestation of Tech Ethics: A Sociotechnical Approach to Ethics and Technology in Action

Paper by Ben Green: “Recent controversies related to topics such as fake news, privacy, and algorithmic bias have prompted increased public scrutiny of digital technologies and soul-searching among many of the people associated with their development. In response, the tech industry, academia, civil society, and governments have rapidly increased their attention to “ethics” in the design and use of digital technologies (“tech ethics”). Yet almost as quickly as ethics discourse has proliferated across the world of digital technologies, the limitations of these approaches have also become apparent: tech ethics is vague and toothless, is subsumed into corporate logics and incentives, and has a myopic focus on individual engineers and technology design rather than on the structures and cultures of technology production. As a result of these limitations, many have grown skeptical of tech ethics and its proponents, charging them with “ethics-washing”: promoting ethics research and discourse to defuse criticism and government regulation without committing to ethical behavior. By looking at how ethics has been taken up in both science and business in superficial and depoliticizing ways, I recast tech ethics as a terrain of contestation where the central fault line is not whether it is desirable to be ethical, but what “ethics” entails and who gets to define it. This framing highlights the significant limits of current approaches to tech ethics and the importance of studying the formulation and real-world effects of tech ethics. In order to identify and develop more rigorous strategies for reforming digital technologies and the social relations that they mediate, I describe a sociotechnical approach to tech ethics, one that reflexively applies many of tech ethics’ own lessons regarding digital technologies to tech ethics itself….(More)”