Stemming Sinister Tides: Sustainable Digital Ethics Through Evolution
Ethics, as applied to the business world, are nothing new, and ethics itself has been a topic of conversation and debate for thousands of years. However, the rapid development of technology in the modern world brings with it both potential harm and benefits. As automated decision-making systems become ever more ubiquitous across all industries, what are the key questions organizations need to address, now and in the future? How can organizations create a sustainable future through managing ethical concerns at every stage of development? Ethical frameworks must be more than a way to define digital ethics; they must create an ‘ethics of action’ by proactively influencing approaches to technology development and implementation. Values and vision statements can only become ethics through accountability: by getting off the page and into practice.
A century ago, a massive storage tank in Boston failed, washing a 40-foot wave of molasses into a crowded neighbourhood. In minutes over 100 people were injured or died. The disaster resulted in a five-year investigation incorporating evidence from over a thousand witnesses, having a lasting impact on industrial regulations. Today's technologists, both in well-established sectors and new industries, could take lessons from this story about creating a scalable ethical technology practice—and what happens when ethics are on the back burner.
Drawing on examples from contemporary ethical questions in technology as well as the century-old disaster, this paper proposes a series of interventions that evolve with the maturity of a product or service. Starting from determining how organizations and teams are managing ethical concerns in day-to-day practice and moving through options for building or adopting an ethical approach tailored to team needs, this approach enables teams to understand why different stakeholder groups may have differing ethical priorities and offer options for aligning ethical perspectives as products move towards industrial ubiquity.
Professional ethics are a shared, systemic-level conversation about sticking to our principles. This is not a conversation that happens once and is finished but instead is a constant striving. This paper proposes methods for continually and sustainably evolving that conversation.