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  • Writer's pictureRussell E. Willis

The Scope of Responsibility in an Age of Pervasive Technology

Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones

Episode 4

When we think of technology in today's world, the issue of the scope of responsibility must be addressed. Under what circumstances and within what time frame are we responsible for any particular act?

A traditional view of the scope of responsibility

Traditional views of responsibility were based on face-to-face interactions. Time was viewed as morally relevant at the moment of decision and action. Responsibility was rarely considered beyond the lifetimes of those directly involved in the matter. Indirect and unintentional consequences of human action generally held little or no moral significance.

The expanding scope of technology and, thus, responsibility

Contemporary technology, on the other hand, has the potential to expand greatly the effects of human conduct in both space and time. Technology also often engenders a wide range of indirect and unintended effects that are magnified by the far-reaching power associated with contemporary technology. Technology has the potential to reach far into the web of relationships and far into the future. As the scope of technology fluctuates, so does the scope of responsibility. The difficulty in assessing responsibility in an age of pervasive technology arises when the magnitude of a particular action is far-reaching in terms of the number of relationships involved and the extent in time and space of the consequences. There is also a problem when an action introduces some unprecedented factor with no reasonable analogies to help predict the near- or long-term effects.

These conditions certainly strain traditional notions of the scope of responsibility. How and where do we draw fitting lines of responsibility -- lines that accurately trace accountability in terms of both cause-and-effect and authority? How do we reasonably, and practically, weigh the degree of diligence or negligence of the agents involved -- especially when there are hundreds, thousands, or even millions of agents directly involved? Universal answers to these questions are impossible. But an adequate model of responsibility must have a broad view of cause-and-effect and authority within the web of relationships and into the future. It must also take into account the nature and scope of unintended consequences. The role of foresight (or its lack) becomes crucial to such an expanded view of responsibility.

Some examples

Some examples jump out at us because of the potentially catastrophic consequences they present. For example, what is the appropriate scope of responsibility for storing nuclear waste that remains highly toxic for thousands of years? This includes not only waste from the production and use (including testing) of nuclear weapons, but also of the tons of waste from nuclear power sources and medical technologies. How do we attribute responsibility for germ-line genetic manipulations that will be passed on to countless future generations of plants, animals, and human beings? If hydrocarbon emissions are a cause of atmospheric warming, who is responsible, and to what extent, for the consequences of climate change?

Other examples are far less dramatic, but may introduce new and/or troubling questions of responsibility. This is particularly true if the appearance of normality masks the seriousness of the consequences.

Responsibility in the age of the Internet, smart phones, and social media

Some of the most compelling examples of this issue relates to the exponentially growing use of communications technologies in everyday life across the globe. First the Internet, then cell-phone technology and ultimately the development of "smart" phones and social media, have dramatically increased the scope and power of human communications -- in an extraordinarily short time frame. Today, global communication is virtually instantaneous. Communication of text, voice, and even complex graphic medias is now commonplace in almost every nation of the world. As early as 2014 there were more cell-phone subscriptions (over 8 billion) than people alive on the earth (around 7 billion -- citation). And that was accomplished in a single generation -- less than 20 years. Every day, web and app designers continue to create communication, collaboration, and social media tools that increase the popularity and use of these new modes of communication. What are the effects of these trends on responsibility?

More information to process and less time to process it effectively

In an age of pervasive technology, we are well outside of the norm of face-to-face human interaction and the traditional pace of life (when it took days for mail to cross oceans or continents - yes, that is why it is called "snail" mail!). Communication today travels virtually instantaneously from any source to any recipient (and even any number of recipients) across the globe.

Not only does this lead to potential information overload, but also reduces the time we have to respond to the information. We now tend to respond as instantaneously as we receive the communication. Traditional models of responsibility assumed longer periods of reflection on how to answer. The pace of life was generally slower, and since communication often took a long time, there was less impulse to respond without care or consideration. In face-to-face situations, the damage caused by impulsive actions was largely limited to fewer decision-makers or a limited number of agents wielding power. In today's world, how often do we to hit "send" without thinking about the consequences (or thinking at all!)? And how often do we come to regret hitting send?

Anonymity, complexity, and permanence

It is now common practice for internet and social media users to communicate through pseudonyms, and avatars. This ability to communicate anonymously has had some positive effects on public discourse. It has emboldened individuals with minority status to speak more freely and powerfully. It has brought some conversations "out of the closet" and into our living rooms, kitchens, workplaces, and even bedrooms. It has allowed ideas themselves to be considered, since we often could not hear an accent or see the color of skin, the sex, or age of the speaker. And we could not witness clues about their wealth or social standing since we could not see how they dressed or "presented" themselves, except through their words or the images they shared. This has no doubt led to productive communication and the dissemination and sharing of nontraditional voices and ideas.

Even so, anonymity has certainly complicated responsibility. How can you hold someone responsible if you do not know who you are actually communicating with? And purposeful anonymity, as practiced by hackers and others who use stolen or misleading identities, is often an intentional way to escape responsibility or to lay "blame" on others. A prime example is the Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential election. Even if not intentional, anonymity deflects responsibility away from you or to someone else.

Add to this the mind-boggling scope and complexity of the Internet. This complexity invites misuse. It also seems to perpetuate a laize-faire approach to communication that denigrates any pretext of responsibility. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that social media invites users to "share." This increasingly moves the locus of responsibility further and further away from the context of the original communication. When context is lost or confused, meaning can also be lost or confused. This can be both accidental and unintended, or expressly intentional and calculated. In either case, it confounds responsibility.

Finally, digital technology, the foundation of the Internet, mobile communication, and social media, is inherently permanent. In fact, we are often discovering -- sometimes at great cost and embarrassment! -- how difficult it is to absolutely "delete" anything. It turns out that the internet is aptly named the "Web"! For once caught in this intgricate Web, little escapes! It now appears that one of the centerpieces of responsibility in the age of pervasive technology is: nothing that you say on the Internet or in social media is private or can be unsaid. Technology too often means that we can no longer assume that we are playing by the rules of common face-to-face human relationships.

In traditional face-to-face situations you had to take an extra, deliberate steps to memorialize what was communicated. Thus, responsibility often rested on the trustworthiness of the parties to truthfully represent what was done. Ironically, in the case of digital communication, "trustworthiness" seems to be relegated to the technology. Meanwhile, the parties often fight to disavow what they actually communicated, often claiming to have been "hacked," quoted out of context, or simply misunderstood.

So where do we go from here in understanding the nature of responsibility in an age of pervasive technology?

The next step in our quest to understand responsibility in an age of pervasive technology is to grapple with the fact that technology appears to order life, often at the expense of human control. Technology involves conflicting factors and embodies various and sometimes competing values. It is susceptible to multiple, even competing interpretations.

Some of these factors are healthy, productive and life-affirming. Others are debilitating, destructive, and life-destroying. These factors and values create an ordering of human life and the world we live in. This ordering affects, but does not necessarily overwhelm human agency and responsibility. Indeed, this conflict often resides in a single manifestation of technology. Take the examples of the Internet and social media we just discussed. These technologies have certainly benefited humanity and offered new possibilities for a broad range of individuals. They also confuse and negate responsibility in several ways.

In the next few blogs in this series we will unpack the nature of responsibility in light of this conflictive, multi-faceted, dynamic, and ambiguous reality we call "ambivalent technology."

Next time in Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency, and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones -- "Ambivalent Technology 1: Technological Determinism"


This is an updated version of a portion of "Complex Responsibility in an Age of Technology," in Living Responsibly in Community, ed. Fredrick E. Glennon, et al. (University Press of America, 1997): 248. Buy at Amazon.


In this series

Introduction: Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency, and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones - June 1, 2018.

Episode 1: "What Does It Mean To Be Responsible? "- June 5, 2018.

Episode 2: "Technology Revealed as a Mode of Human Activity" - June 16, 2018.

Episode 3: "Homo technicus as the Responsible Self" - June 30, 2018.

Episode 4: "The Scope of Responsibility in an Age of Pervasive Technology" - July 12, 2018.

Episode 5: "Ambivalent Technology 1: Technological Determinism"

Episode 6: "Ambivalent Technology 2: The Political Dimension of Technology"

Episode 7: "Ambivalent Technology 3: Forced Options"

Episode 8: "Ambivalent Technology 4: The Ideological Dimension of Technology"

Episode 9: "Ambivalent Technology 5: The Ethics of Self-Limitation"

Episode 10: "Homo technicus as the Responsible Self: Complex Responsibility"

© 2018 Russell E. Willis



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