Ethics as requirements: justifying the interrogation into methodology

Every now and then I re-read Moor’s 2006 paper ‘Why we need better ethics for emerging technologies‘. It’s become one of those permanent tab items and has been saved in pretty much every cloud platform and external hard drive I own.

Generally, I find it a stark reminder of the stakes when it comes to discussions about ethics of technology, particularly in discussions about inclusive design and the entanglements with capitalist modes of production. My first ‘proper’* paper on critical approaches to design of technology was at the 2018 Techno-Resistance and Black Futures conference, over a decade after Moor’s paper was published, and even then I remember saying that, as we’re sitting in lecture theatres mutually assuring or dismaying each other in turn with our findings, in many ways we’re too late – this stuff is already out there in production, being maintained, gathering data, justifying metrics and changing user’s paradigms; it’s not just in the lab or an interesting thought experiment. One can’t reset complex systems to t=0, so if we’re serious about stopping algorithmic bias etc., then we might need to start acting like it.

Even now, in a time when the amazing Algorithmic Justice League is much more familiar to people of tech, we still get news stories like this wherein a Microsoft AI was (in the process of being tested on an unsuspecting public) revealed to be incapable of differentiating between two famous women of colour.

But whilst Moor’s paper is generally a healthy reminder that we still have a very long way to go, different things will stick out depending on my mood.

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Quotes from ‘Why we need better ethics for emerging technologies’ by James Moor

‘‘Technology’’ is ambiguous. When speaking of a particular kind of technology, such as airplane technology, we sometimes refer to its paradigm and sometimes to its devices and sometimes to both. A technological paradigm is a set of concepts, theories and methods that characterize a kind of technology. The technological paradigm for airplanes includes the concept of a machine that flies, the theory of aerodynamics, and the method of using surfaces to achieve and control flight. A technological device is a specific piece of technology. The Wright brothers’ airplane and commercial jetliners are examples of technological devices. Technological devices are instances or implementations of the technological paradigm. Technological development occurs when either the technological paradigm is elaborated in terms of improved concepts, theories, and methods or the instances of the paradigm are improved in terms of efficiency, effectiveness, safety, etc. Of course, technological development has occurred in numerous technologies over thousands of years.

But in some cases technological development has an enormous social impact. When that happens, a technological revolution occurs. Technological revolutions do not arrive fully mature. They take time and their futures, like the futures of small children, are difficult to predict. We do have an idea of how children typically develop and likewise I believe we have an idea of how revolutions typically develop. I will try to articulate that conception in terms of a plausible model of what happens during a typical technological revolution.


This is a model of open technological revolutions in the sense that the revolution occurs in an open society and the technology is accessible directly or indirectly by the general public as a good or service over time. I have been assuming a liberal democratic state in which market forces, even if regulated, play an important role. These are the conditions under which technological revolutions can flourish. The automobile revolution and electrification revolution are examples of reasonably open technological revolutions. In closed revolutions the access to the technology remains severely restricted by social, political, or economic forces. For example, a ruling elite or a military may maintain control by limiting access and use of particular technologies. The development of nuclear weapons would be an example of a closed technological revolution. Closed technological revolutions by definition will control the dispersal of the technology so that they are unlikely to proceed through all of the aspects of the permeation and power stages in this model.


To identify a technological revolution one must consider the technological paradigm, the technological devices that instantiate the paradigm, and the social impact of these devices.


The social impact of the devices instantiating the paradigm is most indicative of the stage of development. Without a significant social impact from the overall set of these devices, the revolution has not yet occurred.


The point is that sometimes a conceptual muddle is resolved first, through analogies or other reasoning, which in turn will influence the selection of a policy. And sometimes the policy is selected first based on analysis of consequences or other justificatory methods and the conceptual muddle is thereby resolved in reference to the new policy.


Because of the limitations of human cognitive systems, our ethical understanding of developing technology will never be complete

Note: I’m saving this quote because it’s a good example of how – in even such a throwaway line which to some it seem I’m overanalysing – linear assumptions about the kind of system we live in, and thus the kind of systems we can manage, influence how we model our practical understanding of the systems and our responses. So I would argue our ethical understanding will never be complete, not because of limitation of human cognition, but due to limitation of living in a complex system in which there is never complete understanding, no matter how much computational power you throw at it.

Ethicists need to be informed about the nature of the technology and to press for an empirical basis for what is and what is not a likely consequence of its development and use. Scientists and technologists need to confront considerations raised by ethicists and social scientists, considerations that may affect aspects of the next grant application or risky technological development.

Source: ‘Why we need better ethics for emerging technologies’ 

Thoughts, notes and references for ‘Space Cannot be the Place’ poster at SSiC 2020

I’ve been working on my poster for the Space Science in Context conference. This is the first time I’ve ever presented a poster, and done so at a virtual conference so I’m doubly intrigued how this will go down.

As it’s been a while since I’ve had close proximity with research in either Physics or hardware/software, I thought I might as well stick to what I know and critically discuss programs such as the 100 year Starship, which I chose almost as a retrospective; it had been a topic of a talk given by Erik Steinskog at the 2017 AfroFutures_UK conference where it was analysed as an embodiment of the AfroFuturist paradigm being a multi-disciplinary enterprise, dedicated to taking humanity to the stars, all while being headed by a Black woman, Mae Jemison (a legit hero of mine) no less.

However, in the time since then, in some ways it has been as any and all of these great sounding exercises are. The why was beyond the scope of my poster but I thought I could do some credit to a material analysis of why these exercises of liberal reparations can be problematic.

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Trip to V&A – Modernities aboundeth

Had a working from home day and spent the afternoon at the V&A fuelling more thoughts on a presumably upcoming article/talk on digital materiality.

Ventured to the rapid response and modernist collections which I don’t often do. There’s always something fun about analysing the material product through the theoretical framework of the designer/maker in question.

A photo of the display of 'The Toaster Project' by Thomas Thwaite. There is a homemade toaster and the associated casing. Around it are all the tools used to create the casing, to smelt the metals and so on.Really dug Thomas Thwaites ‘The toaster project’. Design often obscures the truth about thermodynamic symmetry – that time and effort saved at one end of a process will incur a cost at another. This is one reason why the question of ethical design or ethical tech is either insultingly trivial or stereotypically complex – the time saved in a washing machine (for example) is taken in the form of excavating, purifying and shaping metal ores to provide circuit components. To reiterate a question asked at Sheffield’s doc fest panel, asking whether a particular example of tech is ethical requires a strong stomach.

The conservation of energy has financial as well as work-based components. The fact that a cheap toaster costs £120k to reproduce by hand speaks volumes about the hidden siphonings throughout the process.

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