• Jonathan Ebsworth

Make the digital ethics debate relevant and valuable to people




This is the second in a series of blogs built around techUK’s important Digital Ethics paper which raised 8 priority actions needing urgent attention. In this one we are looking at the first one: Make the digital ethics debate relevant and valuable to people.


Can Digital Ethics ever be relevant and valuable to people?

We may have made a general case for the significance of the issues of digital ethics – but we need to be able to help the public in general to buy into this too.


The techUK paper raises critical points about Digital Ethics, for example:

  • They can only be delivered through ongoing process – rather than representing a milestone that can be reached

  • They are neither a legal nor a compliance framework but rather a means to generate ‘ethical foresight’.

These points must to be addressed, but they don’t reflect directly the kind of issues that the general public cares about. What must we do make this topic relevant and significant?


The label ‘Digital Ethics’ is an obstacle

First of all, we find the tone of the current debate too abstract, it is riddled with jargon; dominated with theoretical extrapolations: even the label ‘Digital Ethics’ is unhelpful.


ethics/ˈɛθɪks

> PLURAL NOUN

1 [usually treated as plural] moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity.

2 [usually treated as singular] the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles. [Oxford English Dictionary]


The ‘e’ word carries echoes of arcane discussions in cloistered communities. It is hard to engage with this rather intellectualised form of ethics. People do care about things like:

  • their rights and responsibilities

  • what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’

  • living a ‘good life’

We need a much better label for this topic. ‘Digital Ethics’ is a convenient shorthand, but it is jargon. It is exclusive. We need urgently to develop an inclusive, meaningful language to make this discussion relevant and engaging.


Can Digital Ethics ever be seen as valuable?

The simple answer to this question, is ‘Yes’, but to engage people we have to stop arguing about esoterica and focus on things that matter to them:

1. Do we want Google/Facebook/Amazon/Microsoft/Apple to:

  • know all our comings and goings, and to be able to predict what we will likely do next?

  • use technology to nudge us their preferred commercial or political outcome – confident that we will follow their promptings?

2. Would permitting governments the same insights be any better?

3. Are decisions or recommendations made by private or public systems ‘fair’? How do we challenge them and who is accountable for them?


We need to raise immediate, material issues using clear language in our public discussions.


To Conclude

The issues that Digital Ethics address are vitally important for everyone in our society.


To help people engage, we have to change our public language. We need to bring the debate down from the political and business elite onto the streets. We need to stop speaking gibberish and find ways to describe these challenges in straight forward English.


If we want people to care, then the issues we raise must matter now, to them. Exploring ‘whether your smartphone was designed to be addictive?’ is a more relevant ethical question for the public than ‘is that machine-learning dataset fair?’


We need to launch and sustain positive campaigns like those that have moved opinions around drunk driving, climate change or environmental destruction. We need to get moving. Time is not on our side. More on that in our next post.

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