Making A Difference Award (2003) — Don Gotterbarn (interview)

[Q1]: Looking back, what was it that first sparked your interest in computer/information ethics?

[A]:   In the mid 70’s I left teaching philosophy and went into computer consulting with no academic training in computing. I was amazed at the kinds of critical projects I worked on. I, like my colleagues in the industry, loved the challenging problems. Each successful project (defined as somehow getting a computer to do something that resembled what the customer wanted) was viewed as a personal success. I was getting concerned by the number of projects developed (by me and by others) without any prior concern for the impact of the product or of the quality of the work. It was clear to me that some attention to potential impacts would change the way systems were developed and change their impact.

Joseph Weizenbaum’s (1976), “Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation” gave clear expression to my concerns. As a philosopher, I had talked about values but had not realized that the products we develop and the way we develop them embody values.  At that time, philosophers seemed to be the only ones publicly addressing the problem — Jim Moor’s discussion in 1978 addressing the question “Are their decisions computers should not make?” being a noteworthy example.  Being in the industry my concerns were very pragmatic: we needed standards and ways to raise the professional’s consciousness about these issues.  Variations of this concern with helping professionals identify and mitigate potential negative ethical and social impacts of their work have been my focus since then.

There needed to be more attention paid to the domain of professional ethics – the values that guide the day-to-day activities of computing professionals in their roles as designers and developers of computer artifacts and in the ethical decisions they make during the development of these artifacts

[Q2]: In your opinion, what is/are the most pressing issues in our field today?  Why?

[A]:   Many people talk about a particular type of issue- pornography on the web, privacy, or intellectual property. I start from an optimistic position that most people want to do the right thing. Even for ethical people, one of the major problems in computer ethics is maintaining an awareness of the ethical problems when being distracted by the wonderful possibilities created by a new technology. As any new technology is developed, the developers tend to be fascinated with the technology and the exciting but distracting challenges of exploring it and getting it to work.  The awareness of potential negative ethical impacts frequently comes only later and is evidenced by the amount of rework that needs to be done to mitigate what might have been seen earlier. Unfortunately the rework occasionally includes an overreaction that does harm in another direction. This cycle of fascination with a technology and seeing it as value-free during its early development has repeated itself. The Internet was wonderful in 1994 but then, with a concern with pornography, naked pictures were restricted on the Internet, including those of the Venus de Milo and medical work on the progress of breast cancer if they contained photographs. One of my major concerns is that we repeat this process without approaching each new technology with an eye to the values it may embody while we are developing it.  Starting out with the concern for those values will produce a better (not perfect) technology.

In order to make ‘becoming aware of potential ethical issues at the beginning of development’ effective, we need to develop and discuss effective decision procedures on how to respond to the identified ethical issues. We need to go beyond the overly simplistic approaches and understand the way the philosophical theories actually apply in the real world. (See J. Moor “Just Consequentialism” for an effective approach.)

[Q3]: Where do you see the field in the future?

[A]:   In the future, I will be surprised by the development and impact of new technologies. Having been in this field of computer ethics for a long time, I have seen a slow intermittent forward progress in addressing these issues. Most technologies were slow to become self-aware of their ethical impact. It is a forward step that as Nano-technology is developing its ethical issues are being addressed, but we are slower to address the ethical issues of social networking. There seems to be more of a global agreement on the ethical responsibilities of software developers. For example the joint Code of Ethics developed by the ACM and IEEE has been adopted by professional societies in several countries and as a standard for work in several corporations.

The future is unpredictable and I have no idea what it will bring; but I know it will be better if we do not mistakenly start out thinking that technology and values can be separated, mistakenly think things will be o.k. if we first worry about the technology and then worry about the ethics.

[Q4]: What advice or words of encouragement would you give to up and coming scholars?

[A]:   Ethics is not an easy field. Ethics is changing and has a history, albeit a somewhat brief history. New and continuing work in this area from theoreticians and practitioners is important. Forwarding scholarship will have a significant impact. Unfortunately, people may have impassioned opinions about the way people and computers interact, and sometimes think that those opinions are automatically legitimate scholarship. Computer ethics has matured and like other domains we need to be familiar with the literature to do work in this