William M. Chace

Ethics in Cyberspace

Technological revolutions, such as the one now going on all around us, have considerable ethical consequences. Certain previously "inherent" and inalienable properties of the human mind are now appearing as prominent attributes of the non-human. A few decades or centuries ago, only we could compute and manipulate large numbers; now machines are able to do enormous mathematical and complicated analytical tasks with far greater retentiveness, reliability, and precision than any human can do. This fact leads to a growing recognition and even a fear that human authority and therefore human centrality is diminishing.

The ethical issues arising from the consequent perception of our own marginality are considerable. Far from being neutral, computers seem the latest and most convincing evidence that technology establishes the rules by which people live. "Bar-coding," unknown before computers, symbolizes for some people an uncomfortable reminder that, after all, we really can be treated as no more than a large but infinitely manipulable data-set. The intrinsic uniqueness that rightly or wrongly gives each of us a sense of pride seems little less than a charming fiction in the face of our collective and knowable homogeneity.

Consider also the attractions of so-called "virtual reality." Not wanting to cope with the world as it actually is and wanting to establish a simulacrum of it that you can control is certainly not new to our time. But as more sophisticated computing machines bring us more attractive and alluring versions of virtual reality, the primary ethical question is, by what calculation is "real life" (RL) to be preferred to "virtual reality" (VR)? If the former is as disappointing and tedious as it often winds up being, why not opt for its more attractive replacement?

The answer--an answer framed in ethical terms--must be that our freedom to depart RL so as to enjoy VR must be proportional to finishing up our tasks in the here and now, in the real world as we find it. Were want and poverty gone, were racial injustice no more, were wars a thing of the past, then we would be free to depart. Since these good things have not yet occurred, we are not free. That is an ethical response. But since the ethical response cannot be imposed in a mandatory way, there is nothing to prevent anyone from ascending into cyberspace and leaving the unsolved problems behind. The machines are waiting.

The freedom to depart serves to point out a crucial feature of the computer revolution. Some of us are at liberty to depart anytime, but the bulk of the population of the world, those without computers and computing technology, is not free to leave at all. That demarcation is likely to become more entrenched as time goes on, and the ethical considerations involved will grow apace.

What of the power we have to avert or change the direction of what seems like inevitability? Not all inevitabilities are ethically neutral. Two schools of thought are emerging about the "inevitability" of the digital revolution. One argues that the virtue of computers is that they will allow us at last to escape our biological, physical, and geographical limitations and to enter a world entirely of our own making and thus one more congenial to us. The other school believes the digital revolution offers too little and demands too much, exchanging new information and an abstract kind of "connectedness" for the shift of our allegiance from the physical world to the virtual one, thereby limiting our autonomy.

These views differ on ethical grounds. Are we witnessing a form of technological narcosis, in which the pleasure of being able to manipulate information and reality is so great that we have lost sight of our essentially human, biological, mortal, and earth-bound selves? Are we neglecting the consequences of possessing a reality-shaping technology that will serve to entrench the gulf between the haves and the have-nots of the world? And to what end, what human end, do we as humans wish to direct the force we have created? Remember that when television was invented, there was a great debate about what would be shown on the new sets. At last someone said, "While we are waiting for the answer, why don't we show cartoons, old movies, baseball games, and stuff from the newspaper?" We are all still waiting for what TV is really going to show.

What will computers do for humans, and what will they do to advance human causes?

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