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"Big tech and societal sustainability: an ethical framework"

by Arogyaswamy, Bernard (2020)


Sustainability is typically viewed as consisting of three forces, economic, social, and ecological, in tension with one another. In this paper, we address the dangers posed to societal sustainability. The concern being addressed is the very survival of societies where the rights of individuals, personal and collective freedoms, an independent judiciary and media, and democracy, despite its messiness, are highly valued. We argue that, as a result of various technological innovations, a range of dysfunctional impacts are threatening social and political stability. For instance, robotics and automation are replacing human labor and decision-making in a range of industries; search engines, monetized through advertising, have access to, and track, our interests and preferences; social media, in connecting us to one another often know more about us than we ourselves do, enabling them to profit in ways which may not coincide with our well-being; online retailers have not only acquired the ability to track and predict our buying choices, but also they can squeeze vendors based on their outsize bargaining power; and, in general, virtual technologies have changed both the way we think and our sense of self. With the rising deployment of the Internet of Things, and developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence, the threats to individual freedoms and rights, societal cohesion and harmony, employment and economic well-being, and trust in democracy are being ratcheted up. This paper lauds the benefits and addresses the harm wrought by the high tech giants in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). The search for rapidly growing revenues (and shareholder returns and stock prices) drives firms to accelerate product innovation without fully investigating the entire gamut of their impacts. As greater wealth accrues to the leaders of tech firms, inequalities within firms and societies are widening, creating social tensions and political ferment. We explore the ethical nature of the challenge employing a simple utilitarian calculus, complemented by approaches rooted in rights, justice, and the common good. Various options to address the challenges posed by ICTs are considered and evaluated. We argue that regulation may do little more than slow down the damage to society, particularly since societal values and political preferences vary internationally. Firms need to establish ethical standards, imbuing the upholders of these standards with sufficient authority, while creating a culture of morality. User involvement and activism, and shareholders' concerns for the sustainability of societies on whose continued prosperity they depend, are imperative to humanity's ability to decide the future direction of technology.


Big Tech, Centralized Power, Cognition, Ethical Criteria, Social Impacts, User Activism, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Sustainability, Justice, Rights, Environmentailsm



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