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Toward an ethic of personal technologies

  • AuthorRhema Zlaten
  • Published Friday, April 7th, 2017
  • Comments0

The permeation of personal technology devices in American culture suggests that people have a deepening desire to be constantly connected to the world around them. The ease of information access and sharing created by smartphones and other personal technology devices helps to sustain a seamless integration of physical and digital selves. Americans tend to eagerly embrace the benefits of these personal technologies without giving much consideration to the right to information privacy, despite the threats found in a burgeoning American surveillance society. According to a Pew Research study, 68 percent of Americans are “not very concerned” orsomewhat concerned” about government surveillance of American data. These responses indicate that there is a general lack of knowledge in modern American society concerning how digital information is collected and used by governments and businesses.

One striking use of surveillance that Americans have largely overlooked is the implementation of dirt box technologies by the military and the government. This practice, which does not require civilian consent for data collection, involves an aircraft flying over a specific area and intercepting data, calls and text messages from thousands of people at once, according to an investigation by Ali Winston for Reveal. The captured data is primarily used to track criminal activity, but there are no constraints on how the government can further use those data sets, and thousands of innocent civilians are included in each dirt box sweep. Are Americans aware of the data they freely give away when they consent to carrying personal technology devices at all times? Should there be constraints placed not just on government entities but also on businesses and apps that collect big data to build products and develop marketing? Considering the prevalence of personal device usage in American culture, it’s time to establish rights in surveillance and big data collection for the digital selves generated by personal technology devices. An ethic of personalized technologies would allow government organizations and businesses to start a conversation (and eventually implement policies) about the best practices for protecting the digital representations of Americans. In turn, Americans would greatly benefit from a philosophical conversation about their digital lives and both the risks and benefits of using personal technologies.

To comprehend why more and more people embrace enhanced technology in their daily lives, and why people are generally willing to trade their personal data for the conveniences afforded by these technologies, we must first examine how consumers grew to accept human augmentation. Scientists and philosophers have long dreamed of a world where advances in technology would improve human society. One major proponent of human augmentation by technology was computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider. In his famous essay,  Licklider defined man-computer symbiosis as the cooperation between humans and machines in an effort to make technological advancements. Licklider’s goal was for technology to facilitate computer solutions to problems while being guided by the creative flexibility of the human mind. Licklider recognized the power of human intelligence in helping machines to solve problems. Humans would no longer need to forsee all problems and their potential solutions; problems “would be easier to solve, and they could be solved faster, through an intuitively guided trial-and-error procedure in which the computer cooperated, turning up flaws in the reasoning or revealing unexpected turns in the solution,” he wrote. This idea of human-computer symbiosis inspired many computer programmers and inventors over the past 60 years and moved companies to design devices that would support platforms for creating digital selves.

There are now several modern examples of human-computer symbiosis that are worth exploration. First, a love of personal technology devices as created a culture of tethered selves and the tracking of digital footprints. The theory of tethered selves is another way of explaining how we sustain a 24/7 connection to technology, making our devices somewhat of phantom limbs. According to Sherry Turkle, the director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, technology is “the architect of our intimacies, but this means that as we text, Twitter, e-mail, and spend time on Facebook, technology is not just doing things for us, but to us, changing the way we view ourselves and our relationships.” Tethering ourselves to technology means being more dependent on those technologies in every aspect of life. As we interact with technology in a seamless way, we create digital footprints, the composite actions of treading through the World Wide Web, according to Ryan Greysen.

Examples of human-computer symbiosis and digital footprints can be found in all types of digital landscapes, from social media platforms to companies that mine big data. One study by personality technology researchers Wu Youyou, Michal Kolinski and David Stillwell created algorithms of digital footprints. These algorithms were used to predict the preferences and personality traits of individuals based on their posts and likes on Facebook. The study found that digital footprints could predict the Facebook users’ preferences better than their friends could. On a broader level, digital footprints create endless data ripe for analysis. This vast amount of information is harvested through techniques such as meta-data analysis, with the goal of using the big data to problem-solve. This utility is another instance of human-computer symbiosis.

As digital selves continue blending with physical selves, we will become transmediated selves, or people whose online and offline selves blend seamlessly into one identity, as proposed by technology and religion philosopher J. Sage Elwell who also maintains that umans will continually embrace deepening relationships with personal technology devices. The theory of transmediated selves suggests that people are comfortable with technology because it is not a separate reality anymore; we no longer hop “online” and then go “offline.” Because of personalized devices, we are only a few clicks away from the online world at all times, and these devices constantly track our habits through various applications. Therefore, theories such as the transmediated self must be translated into formal law and governmental definitions of people, and new codes of conduct (and even policies) are needed to protect individuals in modern culture’s transmediated reality. An ethic of personal technologies would help form these definitions and protections.

Licklider’s man-computer symbiosis, Elwell’s transmediated self and Turkle’s tethered selves help us understand our eagerness and willingness to accept ubiquitous technologies and share our private lives online. If technology philosophers are correct, society will continue to rely heavily upon human-computer interactions. Even if the majority of Americans do not care about their information privacy, does that indifference give governments and businesses the authority to usenformation as they please? Absolutely not.  Our deepening human-computer symbiosis necessitates more protection for the consumers involved in such a relationship, as companies (and governments) stand to gain a lot of money and information from a public embracing a transmediated reality.

An ethic of personal technology is needed to help create that consumer protection. In order to help safeguard the users of personal technology, this ethic should consider how the tenants of Licklider and others have influenced the progression, acceptance and usage of technology. An ethic of personal technology should also acknowledge the benefits provided to both users and creators of digital cultures, and it should more clearly establish the rights of the individuals who participate in such environments. These rights need to explain very clearly how personal data will be gathered and used by businesses and government entities. Furthermore, an ethic of personal technology should help define how data from personal devices is stored and perhaps even protect a person’s right to disappear online. One example of protecting this right to dissolve the digital self is the European Commission’s ruling on the “right to be forgotten.”

Complete human-computer symbiosis is on the horizon. The symbiosis as we currently see it might not yet involve chips planted into our bodies or a fully integrated human-robot interface (althoughese technologies are certainly not out of the question). Yet, in many virtual and tangible ways, we have begun to integrate computers into nearly everything we do. The human-computer relationship will only deepen as new life-enhancing technologies emerge and gain traction in our culture. Ultimately, an ethic of personal technology must consider the complicatedoles of computers and humans as they become increasingly intertwined. It seems that individuals who want to be part of mainstream society, engage in business and achieve social and personal success must integrate with technology. In light of this cultural framework, an ethic of personal technology should define the rights of all humans to protect and define their digital selves. If the line between digital selves and physical selves is dissolving, then the basic tenets of democracy must guide the development of human-computer symbiosis and the decisions affecting a society that is wholly dependent on technology.

Rhema Zlaten is a Ph.D. student in the Journalism & Media Communication department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO. Her academic work focuses on how theories and findings from neuroethics, moral psychology, and sociology are shifting media ethics as well as our understandings of virtual spaces. Her professional experience includes reporting, layout design, photography and freelance writing.

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