Saturday, March 21, 2015

Seminar 2 Position Statement: Prof.Carole Brooke (Computing & Social Responsibility)

Faith, values and the trajectory of ICT

I have more questions than answers!  My questions are located around the role of personal faith, values and beliefs.  In particular (but not restricted to) the influence that spiritual-religious beliefs play in decision-making processes around ICT, its use and development. 

‘Religious’ and ‘spiritual’ aspects of life are not usually represented within ICT discussions as a core concern. Whilst much more can be said about operational definitions for these words (Brooke and Parker, 2009), for the purposes of this position statement, I am referring to the deep presuppositions about the nature of reality that influence our life-and-world-views (Basden et al, 2011).  The relationship between these presuppositions and ICT is usually invisible until exposed, which explains why many have assumed that technology can be neutral.

I suggest that there are at least 3 ways in which we should recognise the relevance of these aspects to our discussions on privacy and secrecy issues (ibid).  They are:

1.     The existence of religious attitudes (e.g. Campbell, 2005)
2.     The possibility of the application of religious concepts and/or metaphors (e.g. see Bauwens, 1996; Coeckelbergh, 2010; Wilford, 2013)
3.     The deep religious presuppositions that underlie our ICT (Basden et al, 2011)

The first two types of relationship between ICT and personal values may be much more prevalent than we think. The third type of relationship means that our ICT is inherently and inescapably religious, even though this is frequently ‘unseen’.

The religious-spiritual roots of ICT:

Consideration of the religious-spiritual aspects of technology has a history within academic writings that we can draw upon for the current debate.  Some (e.g. Noble, 1997) have argued that ICT should be kept separate from any discussion of spirituality or religious attitude. Others present a compelling argument for the inextricable link between the two.  Coeckelbergh (2010, p.959) presents at least seven arguments for the ‘intimate connection’ between technology on the one hand and religion and spirituality on the other.  Another interesting statement is made by Wilford (2013) that reflects possibly at least 1 and 2 of the three ways I listed earlier:

“Through the mechanisms of data doubles and cyber lives however, we may be travelling a road that, rather than taking us forward towards greater freedom of expression and choice, may actually be having the opposite effect and leading us to reversing our freedoms in favour of social norms and expectations based on global community expectations, self-imposed censorship and the creation of social media silos.  In this way we may come to have more in common with the pre-reformation society than that of the enlightenment.”
ICTs have come a long way since the publication of ‘In the Age of the Smart Machine’ (Zuboff, 1988).  Even so, we still need a basis for differentiating between the benign and the malign opportunities and constraints, don’t we (Basden et al 2011)?

Bijker and Law (1992, p11.) said:

“Technology does not spring, ab initio, from some disinterested fount of innovation. Rather, it is born of the social, the economic, and the technical relations that are already in place. A product of the existing structure of opportunities and constraints, it extends, shapes, reworks, or reproduces that structure in ways that are more or less unpredictable. And, in so doing, it distributes, or redistributes, opportunities and constraints equally or unequally, fairly or unfairly."

This is a useful reminder for us today. To what extent are we informed about the “social, the economic, and the technical relations that are already in place” or the “existing structure of opportunities and constraints”? 

Stahl (1999) argued that a sort of ‘unacknowledged mysticism’ lies beneath much of our discussions around ICT and that this non-neutrality is religious in nature, not merely sociological. Furthermore, by not recognising this we run the risk of missing out on ethical and intellectual resources that could assist and guide us with respect to ICT’s impact upon humanity. 

If there is an "implicit religion" in ICT then this will be an important aspect of the ‘relations’ (in Bijker and Law’s terms above) which we need to recognise, understand, and take into account when considering the technical and ethical limits of secrecy and privacy.  In essence, then, my approach here is that the religious and the spiritual underlie technology and that this is not optional but inescapable. The way ICT is developed and used is, thus, shaped by ‘religious commitments’ that are of a tacit and inexplicit nature.

Data, what data?
The textual nature of computing has long been established in the literature (e.g. Wittig, 1978). Issues surrounding textual production and data are very central to privacy and security, whether that be decisions concerning what to collect, how to collect it, or what will be the end use of the collected data.  Indeed, even the very definition of what counts as ‘data’ is a site for debate.
There are also interesting possibilities for discussion around conscious (explicit, planned, and deliberate) versus sub-conscious (consequential, unintended, and disregarded) data collection, as well as the concomitant issues of remote control and representation that are entailed (Brooke, 2001).

If making a distinction between a human as a thinking being and a technological device as a non-thinking being  - a challengeable distinction in its own right if we consider ‘the second self’ and ‘cyborganization’ (Turkle, 1984/2005; Haraway, 1999) - then one might also add into this discussion aspects of  ‘unconscious’, as opposed to ‘sub-conscious’, data production?

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