1. Digitization is changing all
aspects of human life. What is its impact on our understanding of
ethics as it
has evolved over centuries? Is there something like a Digital Ethics?
changes brought about by digitization can be compared with the ones
place in Europe in Modernity with a
the industrial revolution in the 19th century. These changes concerned
self understanding particularly with regard to the idea that not god
human being was the centre of reality. To be human means not to be
creature but an autonomous being who understands himself – it was
himself and not herself – as a subject facing objects
so-called outside world. This subject/object dichotomy as developed by,
instance, René Descartes, was the basis of the triumphal
progress of modern science
and technology. Modernity brought also up the paradox of decentering
subject with regard to the universe (Copernican revolution), natural
even to our own consciousness (Freud) while at the same time providing
basis for the conquest and exploitation of nature as well as for the
of other nations politically, economically and culturally.
European Modernity, now spread over
the world, is Janus-faced: it has brought positive changes in human
at the same time these changes were and are concomitant with
imperialism, capitalism, slavery, fascism, world wars and climate
change. The self-understanding
of humans as autonomous beings implied a change in the moral ideas and
on metaphysical and theological presuppositions inherited from
Middle Ages as well as the reasons and procedures for their political
How is morality without religion possible? How can political power be
if there is no king by the grace of god? What are the rules of
and the limits of human action if there are no dogmatic prescriptions?
which procedures and by which institutions are legal rules to be
evaluated and implemented?
Digitization has breathtakingly
evolved in the last twenty years implies no less a change in our
self-understanding. But who is meant when we speak about 'our'
self-understanding? We are subjects embedded in a global network of
objects. Being human means being-in-the-networked-world, most but not
the time. The modern subject-object dichotomy as well as the dualism of
autonomy vs. heteronomy has changed. Networked things are not the same
as the objects
in the outside world imagined by Modernity, nor humans can be conceived
of as purely
as autonomous beings, something that was already questioned by the
and technological discoveries themselves. What makes the digital era
probably that although digitization is a project of Modernity it does
not rely on
the subject-object dichotomy in its original absolute form alone.
the anthropological self-understanding of encapsulated worldless
facing objects in the so-called outside world.
Digital ethics undertakes a critical
reflection about ourselves in a world shaped by digital technology. It
developed since the 1940s by pioneers like Norbert Wiener (1894-1964)
Joseph Weizenbaum (1923-2008). It was first called computer ethics and
mainly with professional issues of computer scientists although Wiener
were well aware that the ethical issues about the impact of computer
concerned society as a whole and not just a profession (Bynum 2015).
became particularly clear when the concept of information society
popular in the 1980s. In 1997 UNESCO held the first
on Ethical, Legal, and Societal Aspects of Digital Information
ITU (International Telecommunication Union) took care of the World
the Information Society (WSIS) held 2003 in Geneva
and 2005 in Tunisia.
During the last fifteen years professional societies dealing with
issues of IT were created such as INSEIT (International Society for
& IT) or the International Center for Information Ethics (ICIE).
academic courses, congresses and workshops flourished soon. The website
provides comprehensive information on publications, events and courses
The label Digital Ethics is recent.
The Academy of Korean Studies in Seoul
invited me to speak on this topic at the 2009 Global Forum on
Peace (Capurro 2010). The Center for Digital Ethics &
Policy at the Loyola
University Chicago published the proceedings of its first
"Digital Ethics. Research & Practice" in 2012. The Stuttgart Media University
created in 2014 an Institute for Digital Ethics. In the meantime,
issues dealing with the impact of digitization on society are daily
newspapers and journals world wide. This public debate mirrors the
legal changes in society. New customs (Latin: mores) arise. We
distinguish moral customs from the academic discipline dealing with
ethics or moral philosophy. According to the French philosopher Michel
ethics means the problematization of morality (Foucault 1983). Digital
is a special field of Information Ethics that embraces ethical issues
information and communication beyond the ones raised by digitalization.
Ethics is closely related to, for instance, Bioethics, Medical Ethics
2. Per definition Ethics should help
humans in their moral decisions. How far does this work in a rapidly
and complex digital world?
The kind of help ethical
theories can provide is the one of analyzing
and criticizing theoretical presuppositions as well possibilities of
their potential consequences for the actors and the world in which they
The plethora of ethical theories in different cultures and epochs are
of the complexity of the issues dealing with human action. They concern
just the responsibility of encapsulated worldless subjects as envisaged
modern subject-object dichotomy, but their original social embeddedness
a common world. Ethical analyses aim at questioning theoretical and
such as prima facie clear concepts and goals, hidden agendas,
structures and information myths as well as fostering intercultural
basic human experiences and values. It is not the aim of ethics to take
about the risks that any theoretical or practical option implies for
for others and for the world we share with others. This is particularly
relevant in case the existential coordinates that rule human life are
change in such a way that they cannot provide any more the kind of
symbolic "immune system" (Sloterdijk 2009) that morality and legal
systems should provide.
We do not live in two separate
worlds, namely the analogue and the digital one. But it is no less true
being-in-the-networked-world has become a predominant feature of
society. Moreover, sharing a common world implies in the meantime that
humans but other living beings as well as natural and artificial things
and more connected to the Internet. This creates dysfunctionalities,
and breakdowns. Symbolic systems that
were designed to protect individuals and societies turn out to be
or outdated. New questions arise about the criteria of good life.
becomes symptomatic for societal transformation. This is the reason why
in information ethics is so crucial today. But thinking needs time.
3. We post and tweet all the time. Is
this kind of using social networks
and online platforms a symptom of the human need for recognition?
Yes, but not only. I believe
that the possibilities created by social
networks and online platforms give rise to narcissism, exhibitionism
but also to new possibilities of presenting oneself authentically. I
analyzed this issue in the context of an interdisciplinary symposium on
organized in 2008 by the Department of Protestant Theology of the
University Frankfurt (Capurro 2009). I dealt with the question whether
are ethical limits of the mediatization of human suffering. I analyzed
between being exposed to suffering by others in the mass media vs.
exposed by oneself in the Internet. But this difference has become
due to media convergence. The reality of social media and online
complex not only with regard to the uses and misuses of personal data
because of different moral and legal norms and their cultural
The ambiguity seems to arise also
from the derivative new ethical imperative: 'Communicate all the time
everything to everybody!' This imperative remains effective also when
believes that the service provider will take care of her privacy which
the case as we know since Edward Snowden. Total communication takes us,
paradoxically, to being "alone together" (Turkle 2011). Human freedom
means the freedom to conceal or reveal who we are. An imperative of
is no less un-human that another of total concealment. The difference
living in online networks on the one hand, and in physical or analogue
environments on the other hand can be misleading in case the former,
been called onlife (The European Commission 2015) and the
are understood and/or experienced as living in two separate worlds
their being viewed as two different ways of being-in-the-world (Capurro
4. Is it possible that the ongoing process
of digital networks connecting humans via smart phones as well as
machine-machine communication, particularly in the case of industrial
production, resembles Pandora's box?
I produce is a part of me but it has also an own way of being. I can
and reveal myself in my works. What I produce can be exchanged.
and use value, pace Karl Marx, need to be reconsidered today. A
the human self as a bunch of digital data becoming an object of
transactions is not per se wrong if humans are not considered
to be a mere
bunch of digital data. This is a Kantian argument that legitimizes
mutual recognition and valuation in the digital era (Eldred 2013).
Arendt's analysis of the "human condition" under the perspectives of
labour, work and action (Arendt 1998) is based, according to the
philosopher Michael Eldred, on a misconception of the concept of value
grounded on objectivity and durability while in fact value is "a social
relation of mutual estimation of performed labour in value-things
money)" (Eldred 2013a, 97). Digitization accelerates the movement of
reified value, as well as of the whole production and delivery process
goods, the knowledge on how to produce them, the marketing and the
of the people and organizations involved. The social interplay between
producers and consumers or users takes place today in online platforms
offer at the same time the possibility for users and customers to
promote themselves as a prosumer. Digital marketing becomes
also a way
of defining 'who am I?' or 'who are we?' in a reified interplay. This
can be authentic or inauthentic, with a lot of possibilities in
depending, for instance, on how others profit by reification through
extortion, defamation, oppression and even annihilation. These and
negative forms of social interplay are not originally different from
in the offline world, but the digital medium offers other possibilities
being-with-others as well as of machine-machine interactions that come
Pandora's digital box. We, her children, being at the same time the
Prometheus and the 'after-thinker' Epimetheus, must be aware in advance
take care of future risks and responsibilities for our life and the
others with whom we share the common world.
5. You speak often about a
robotization of human beings. Where do you see at present the greatest
are becoming widespread in everyday life performing different tasks in
care, hotels, restaurants, schools and private homes. In each case we
think about the criteria we use in order to qualify ethically and
use for good life. To speak about dangers of robotization might appear
Western bias. In Buddhist and Shinto cultures the context of playing
theatre together with a non-metaphysical conception of the human self
different attitude towards robots as in Western societies, although
also the Western tradition of marionettes, like the toys of Jacques de
Vaucansson (1709-1782) (Capurro 2015a) . Robotization might be seen
then as a
danger for human dignity, a value that is enshrined not only in the
constitution but also in the European Charta of Human Rights and even
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In some way, this fear is a
about Western anthropocentrism being questioned by digitization.
On a more pragmatic perspective, the
present debate about the dangers of robotization takes place around
(Marsiske 2012) as well as about the issues arising from the massive
digital devices for surveillance and the question about how far do we
delegate personal responsibility to algorithms for instance in the case
driverless cars. The ethical debate turns then into a debate about
security as well as between autonomy vs. heteronomy that shows that
digitization has its roots in Modernity although it decenters the human
from its privileged position and makes her aware of the interplay in
6. Knowledge is a key value in
today's working environment. Can we foresee the rise of a new working
reason why knowledge is a key value in today's working environment is
do not live in a slave based economy as in Antiquity or in modern
although digital technology fosters new forms of oppression and
French Revolution brought about the democratization of libraries owned
and the Catholic Church. With the Internet and the World Wide Web
libraries as well as digital encyclopedias like Wikipedia that we
call endictyopedias (Greek diktyon = network) are set
2004). Since the 1970s with the production of computerized
bases, the importance of knowledge for public (research) policy was
particularly by, for instance, the Weinberg Report "Science,
and Information" (Weinberg 1963). Alvin M. Weinberg (1915-2006) was the
of President Eisenhower's (and Kennedy's) Science Advisory Committee.
The use of digital technologies in
industry as well as in society at large goes hand in hand with the
of bibliographic und full text data bases, search engines, social
mobile technologies, the internet of things and robotics, to mention
just a few
areas. It is symptomatic for our era that what started as a tool,
development of search engines to deal with bibliographic data for
and industry has now become a core of the digital era. As with
society, new monopolies and power struggles arise between digital
and the (new) working class. Millions and even billions of users
their data for free to a few global players and are happy to be addicts
their 'free' services at least until they become aware that the digital
owners use the personal data of their customers without their consent
for profit or under political pressure as disclosed by whistle blowers
Edward Snowden. In other words, class struggles in the 21st century are
between digital customers and data owners.
We are facing different forms
class divide based on the exclusion from access to digital networks as
on economic and educational differences within a society as well as
nations. The so-called digital divide is not just a technical but a
local and global societal phenomenon for which key ethical questions
justice, freedom, peace, cooperation, and identity have to be
concepts such as autonomy, democracy or the rule of law under the
the nation state are part of the problem when dealing with global
climate change, digital economy or cybertariats, the digital
former proletariats (Gopal 2016). A new form of cosmopolitanism is
that should embrace the well-offs and the cybertariats. Digital
technologies might help overcoming social inequalities and forms of
but they might also aggravate these and other divides in society.
7. What is most needed in
and other educational institutions in order that digital natives become
that digitization is not the only measure for good life?
small South American country, started in 2007, as the first country
an experiment called "Plan Ceibal". "Ceibo" is the name of
a native tree as well as an acronym for "Conectividad de
Básica para el Aprendizaje en Línea" (Connectivity with
for Online Learning) (Plan Ceibal 2016). According to this plan, the
provide a laptop for every child going to public schools, following
Negroponte's idea One Laptop per Child presented at the World
in 2005. This was a good idea but ten years later the situation of
education in Uruguay
and can be compared, according to Jorge Grünberg, Rector of the ORT University
in Montevideo, with the one in Tanzania
(Grünberg 2014). There are social and economic reasons for this.
children, living in better neighbourhood, having access to books and
parents have university education are in a much better position when
they go to
school that cannot be equated with technology alone.
What do digital natives need in
order not to be dazzled by digitization? A globalized world is a world
translations. The knowledge of foreign languages enables us to take a
of ourselves taking a distance from our cultural bias. In a broader
translation can be learned from the history of science with regard to
scientific revolutions as well as from the history of technology.
exercises in creativity which is the engine of social
change. They are also an ethical exercises
challenging traditional customs, principles and values, i.e., the ethos
that holds together a society. If we give time to the students for
kinds of translations particularly with regard to the difference
and offlife, they will have the opportunity to take a critical
8. Concerning Privacy: What are
consequences in case companies, employers, and friends want to know
about us? Is this a danger for our freedom? What is the drawback of too
Privacy is neither a relict
of bourgeois society as Marxists believe,
nor is it a hopeless struggle against digital windmills in a restless
society as digital evangelists propagate. Thinking about the relation
the realm of the public and the private private is no more and no less
thinking about freedom as the capacity to reveal and conceal who we
public-private relation has had different shapes in other epochs and
2013, 2015b). The idea that we could become completely transparent to
ourselves as individuals or as society or that others could know
about us or we about them is a myth. The question is about the reasons
legitimization for such need. If I reveal something about myself in a
context, this does not mean that I automatically agree that such data
widespread to other contexts without my consent. This is the issue
Helen Nissenbaum in her influential book "Privacy in context.
Policy and the Integrity of Social Life" (Nissenbaum 2010). Privacy
then that the information flow does not continue only on the basis of
and convention but also due to "key organizing principles of social
including moral and political ones." (Nissenbaum 2010, 231) In
recent book by Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum: "Obfuscation. A User's Guide for Privacy and
Protest" (Brunton & Nissenbaum 2015) the authors show which
of mechanism of obfuscation users can learn in order to protect
This is a kind of guerrilla tactics to which I point ironically with
'Never enter your real data' (Capurro 2011). Whistle blowers are needed
than ever but also rules of fair play at national and international
we need institutions and forms of political debate dealing with ethical
legal issues of the information society (Capurro 2015b).
9. Germany appears often, compared
with the USA, as being obsessed with the dangers of digitization. Do we
spoke in our wheel economically when we praise data protection?
should not worry about that and pose, instead, to those who laugh at
opposite question whether they want a thoughtless society where living
liberal government with a search for happiness protecting constitution
should care about global rules of fair play for the digital society
with all nations. Questionable is this issue also because the mockery
just blindness about regarding the conflict between freedom and data
by simply believing that freedom is the higher value. In fact, what is
higher value is the commercial interest of some global players that
revenue in case of state regulation. Freedom means in this case, 'let
the rules according to what our customers want. They should decide what
or bad for them.' On the opposite side is overregulation by a nanny
what is most remarkable is that in some cases, liberal states turn into
states and vice versa. Lawrence Lessig, Helen Nissenbaum and Evgeny
mention just a few, have done a thorough analysis of this issue, beyond
clichés on both sides of the Atlantic
in a global scale.
10. Automobile manufacturers
worldwide are working hard developing driverless cars. This means a
development of digital networks as well as a new source of ethical
should have the responsibility that such
a discourse gets started?
cars are a symptom that something is going wrong locally and globally
transportation system. It is not only the chaos in our roads and
particularly in megacities like New Delhi or Sao Paulo, but also the
climate change that raises the question about which kind of
transportation is adequate
in the 21st century from the perspective of digitization. This is not
technological but also an ethical and legal challenge. Norms and rules
fall from heaven but are embedded in legal systems, cultural traditions
geographic conditions. It is possible to program traffic rules into a
driverless car but this does not mean that the car mutates into a being
of reflecting critically, i.e., ethically on such rules taking action
given situation. A code of morality or a legal code is not identical
philosophy or jurisprudence. When a driverless car follows a
does not mean that the car is able to give reasons about its decision
the fact that such reason were given to it. It is not able to interpret
This is the reason why the use of
the term autonomy with regard to driverless cars is problematic.
Autonomy is a
key term of moral philosophy particularly since Modernity. A driverless
basically a heteronomous agent not only because it is not able to move
itself like a living being, although it is called 'auto-mobile', but
because it is not able to give itself the norms according to which it should
act and to take the responsibility for what it does or does not in a
situation. If something goes wrong, then manufacturers, programmers and
to face the issue at stake at least as long as cars or other
do not mutate into philosophers with whom we could continue the talk we
having right now. It would be silly to do business as in a historic
which we face what we could call, following Thomas S. Kuhn's concept of
"scientific revolution," a technical revolution (Kuhn 2012). In this
case, we are not facing the challenge of understanding an aporetic
a motivation for thinking and acting beyond a traditional way of
producing. For a philosopher like Socrates, a productive dialogue ends
aporia that is supposed to wake up the reason and imagination to go
case one is able to accept that the way done so far does not take her
There are a lot of excellent managers and engineers in the automobile
that are able to face the challenge of digitization also as an ethical
challenge, i.e., as a challenge that gives rise to radical solutions
narrow interests of profit making.
11. Some companies understand
globalization and digitization as a strategic goal. What risks does
in case the local context becomes less and less relevant?
his book "What is Globalization?" the German sociologist Ulrich Beck
(1944-2015) uses the term "glocalization" coined by the sociologist
Roland Robertson (Beck 1997). The risks of globalization come from the
globalism. Cultural diversity must me taken into account if
expect that people like their products and are ready to pay for them.
a company becomes global, the more it must pay attention to locality.
strategy can turn into a new kind of cultural and economic colonialism.
users must be aware of this (Capurro 2013). We should get rid of the
and obsessions associated with digitization. This does not mean that we
demonize it. Socratic virtues like self-mastery (enkrateia) and
self-restraint (autarkeia) are important but we, in the West,
learn from the Buddhist practices of release, selflessness and
other living and non-living beings in order to imagine a world beyond
the aporias of Modernity.
I thank Joseph Brenner (Switzerland)
and Jared Bielby (Canada) for critical comments as well as for
polishing my English.
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Last update: November 24, 2016