Book Review:

Soraj Hongladarom & Charles Ess (eds.)

Information Technology Ethics: Cultural Perspectives

Hershey, Pennsylvania 2007

Rafael Capurro
Further readings in IIE (Intercultural Information Ethics):

Information Ethics for and from Africa In: International Review of Information Ethics (IRIE) (2007/7)
Intercultural Information Ethics. A dialogue (M. Nakada/R.Capurro) (2007)
- Intercultural Information Ethics  In: Rafael Capurro, Johannes Frühbauer, Thomas Hausmanninger (Eds.): Localizing the Internet. Ethical Aspects in Intercultural Perspective. ICIE vol. 4, München: Fink Verlag (2007).
- Ethik der Informationsgesellschaft. Ein interkultureller Versuch. In: Wolfgang Coy et al. (Hrsg.): "Shapes of the Things to Come - Die Zukunft der Informationsgesellschaft" (2007)
Towards an Ontological Foundation of Information Ethics. In: Ethics and Information Technology, Vol.8, Nr. 4, 2006, 157-186
Privacy. An intercultural perspective. In: Ethics and Information Technology (2005) 7, 37-47.



    Intercultural Information Ethics (IIE) is an emerging research field. It deals with the impact of information and communication technology (ICT) on different cultures as well as with the discussion on ICT from different cultural perspectives. Both aspects are obviously interrelated. There is a narrow and a broad view of IIE. The narrow view is centered on ICT while the broad view considers other media. Consequently, it is focused on the present status and future development of information societies as far as they are shaped by digital ICT. The broad view considers norms, values and rules of behavior in the field of information and communication independently of what communication medium is being used. It deals particularly with cultures in which an ethical reflection on moral rules in the information and communication field takes place. Due to the impact of digital ICT on present information societies, IIE is focused mainly on the narrow view so far. The comparative inter-cultural ethical analysis can be done at a descriptive as well as at a normative level. Ethics, understood as problematization of morality, has a critical task with regard to existing moral rules and behavior in different societies as well as with the question on how far they are compatible or can even be harmonized without overlooking their differences. Due to the fact that cultural differences play a key role in defining individual and social identity and considering also that such identities are always a product of cultural hybridization, ethical reflection deals questions of homogenization as well as of segregation and immunization. A critical theory of morality is a never ending academic task. It becomes of practical use when it is related to policy and law.

The first international conference on IIE was organized by the “International Center for Information Ethics” (ICIE) and took place in Karlsruhe (Germany) in 2004. The proceedings of this conference were published in the online journal “International Review of Information Ethics” (2004/2). A selection of papers was published by Rafael Capurro, Johannes Frühbauer, Thomas Hausmanninger (Eds.) “Localizing the Internet: Ethical Aspects in Intercultural Perspective” (Munich 2007). The journal “Ethics and Information Technology” (2005/1) published a special issue on intercultural aspects of privacy edited by Charles Ess. Another issue of the same journal (2006/8) edited by Luciano Floridi and Julian Savulescu deals with intercultural aspects of agents and artifacts. In February 2007 the first African Conference on Information Ethics took place in Pretoria (South Africa).

The volume edited by Soraj Hongladarom and Charles Ess “Information Technology Ethics: Cultural Perspectives” is an outstanding contribution to IIE. As the title clearly indicates, the book deals with IIE in the narrow sense. It addresses issues concerning the impact of ICT on different cultures, and explores at the same time some ICT issues such as privacy, intellectual property, online communities, governmentality, gender issues, mobile phones, health care, and the digital divide from an IIE perspective. Although both perspectives are intertwined in most of the papers, the first part of the volume deals mainly with “Theoretical Concerns” while the second part, “Specific Viewpoints,” presents some case studies with emphasis on the Far East. In the Preface, the editors point to the theoretical and practical necessity of IIE. On the theoretical level there is the danger of reliance on a single ethical system – from the West. Computers work the same way everywhere but they are embedded in different cultural and moral contexts which means that there is not such a thing as a neutral technology. The editors plea for a theoretical and practical framework based on “resonance” instead of on “homogeneous universals.”

First Part: Theoretical Concerns

    Let us briefly review some of the contributions starting with the first part. According to Johny Søraker it is possible to broaden the moral status of ICT artefacts in case they have become a constitutive part of someone’s identity. The author draws insights from Western as well as from East Asian classical philosophy. Frances Grodzinsky and Herman Tavani examine pros and cons of online communities particularly with regard to the digital divide and its effects at the local level, i.e., in the United States as well as in other nations such as Malawi. Lorenzo Magnani analyzes the rise of human hybridization with ICT und the building of “material cultures” (Karl Roth) consisting of food, dwellings, and furniture in contrast to immaterial interactions dealing with language as well as the actors’ perceptions, attitudes and values. According to Magnani, ICT can enhance but also jeopardize local cultures. Thomas Herdin, Wolfgang Hofkirchner and Ursula Maier-Rabler discuss the mutual influence between culture and technology at an inter- as well as at a trans-cultural level. They point to the permeability between global and local cultures, allowing individuals to switch between different identities. There is a danger in cultural universalism of cultural identities becoming homogenized. In his contribution on mobile phone and autonomy, Theptawee Chokvasin shows how the condition of self-government arising from hi-tech mobilization affects Thai culture. According to Chokvasin there is a kind of freedom in the Buddhist concept of autonomy that is related to impermanence (Anitya), suffering (Duhkha) and not-self (Anatta). Not clinging to our individual selves is the condition of possibility for moral behavior, i.e., for “human nobility.” Chokvasin claims that the mobility made possible by the mobile phone makes possible a new view on individuality as an instrumental value at the cost of disregarding the morally good. Maja van der Velden analyzes the design of Indymedia, an Internet-based alternative media network of independent media organizations and hundreds of journalists, and TAMI (Text, Audio, Movies, Images), an aboriginal database in Northern Australia useful for people with little or no literacy skills.

The last two contributions to the first section deal with privacy and intellectual property. Dan Burk explores these issues from the perspective of utilitarian and deontological traditions in the United States and Europe in contrast to some non-Western approaches. The European tradition regards creative work as reflecting the author’s personality. According to Burk, two similar models of privacy regulation have emerged. The United States has adopted a sectoral approach eschewing comprehensive data protection laws while the European Union has adopted an approach grounded in strong individual rights. In China, the Confucian tradition largely denied the value of novel creative contribution by instead promoting the respect for the classical work that should be emulated. Under this perspective, copying becomes a cardinal virtue. For New Zealand Maori, creative works belong to the tribe or group, not to a single author. Similarly, among some sub-Saharan communities as well as in the case of many Native American tribes the control of cultural property may be restricted to certain families. Similar alternatives to Western individualist conceptions and practices of privacy can be found in non-Western cultures such as the indigenous African norms based on the concept of ubuntu that emphasizes communal values or in Japanese norms of information access as defined by “situated community.” In his contribution on privacy from a Buddhist perspective, Soraj Hongladarom describes the situation challenging the privacy of Thai citizens due to the government’s plan to introduce a digital national identification card in a country with no specific law protecting personal information. The threat of political misuse raises the question on the nature of privacy and its justification. Hongladarom explores this question from the perspective of two famous Budhhist sages, namely Nagarjuna (c. 150-250 AD) and Nagasena (c. 150 BC). The fact that Buddhism rejects the individual self does not mean, according to Hongladarom, that it rejects privacy. Privacy as used in everyday life, is not denied in Buddhism. It is in fact justified as an instrument for the purpose of living harmoniously according to democratic ideals.

Second Part: Specific Viewpoints

    The second part of this volume deals with case studies from Thailand, South-Africa, the UK, Turkey and the US. Pirongrong Ramasoota examines information privacy in Thai society. Classical Buddhist teaching may not necessarily reflect the behaviour of relatively secularized Buddhists in contemporary Thai society. Ramasoota presents an overview of privacy and data protection in Thai legislation. The Thai public is aware of the importance of control over the circulation of one’s personal information particularly in the Internet in order to limit state surveillance. Pattarasinee Bhattarakosol indicates that there are various factors related to the development of IT ethics in Thailand, one main factor being family background. According to Barbara Paterson, the computer revolution not only threatens to marginalize non-Western cultural traditions, but the Western way of life also has caused large-scale environmental damage. The task of computer ethics is to critically analyze such holistic effects. Paterson proposes that the Earth Charter can function as a framework for such holistic research as it addresses, unlike the WSIS declaration, a broader public. In their analysis of cross-cultural ethical issues of the current und future state of ICT deployment and utilization in healthcare, Bernd Stahl, Simon Rogerson and Amin Kashmeery argue that the ethical implications of such applications are multifaceted and have diverse degrees of sensitivity from culture to culture. The authors analyze cases of Western and non-Western cultures in order to show the complexity of these issues. Gonca Telli Yamamoto and Faruk Karaman deal with business ethics and technology in Turkey, a country in which Western, Islamic, and Turkish cultures compete. Even the Western-oriented population do not see, for instance, an ethical issue in copying intellectual property. The Internet revolution is felt in a delayed fashion in Turkey, which means that the digital divide became a serious problem. Lynettee Kvasny explores the existential significance of the digital divide for America’s historically underserved populations. According to Kvasny, the increased physical access to ICT does not signal the closure of the digital divide in the US. She refuses the instrumental depiction of the digital divide.


    This edited volume is a great effort to increase the awareness on complex moral and cultural issues of present global society. It encourages further thinking and practical action. It is evident that even in the narrow sense of IIE this compilation is not complete, which is obvious in case of an emerging field. Cultural views from, say, Eastern Europe, the Arabic world, India, Latin America and Africa are almost absent or underrepresented. The book is highly relevant for social scientists interested in ICT and vice versa. It is an important tool for critical thinking in the field of ICT public policy. It should become required reading in information ethics courses.

Last update: July 3, 2014

Copyright © 2007 by Rafael Capurro, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.

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