The market is more immediately responsive to consumer preferences. However, the market too is an inadequate regulatory mechanism because of lock-ins already in place. It turns out, for example, that the new economy for sectors such as biotechnology isn’t actually creating a competitive and innovative market; instead, it is dominated by a few giants who bend innovation to protect their existing market share. In addition, the environment too often loses out to the demand for short-term profits.
Even ethics is not enough
This brings us to ethics. Can greater ethical expertise convince governments to spur businesses to act responsibly, especially toward excluded or marginalized groups? Unfortunately, even ethics is just one piece of the puzzle. All too often, ethical committees emphasise individualistic values, for example bodily integrity, above collective values such as equality. Ultimately, moreover, the point is to encourage ethical reflection in every person instead of outsourcing it to groups of experts selected through opaque, possibly undemocratic processes.
So how should we deal with new technology?
We shouldn’t be discouraged by all these critical remarks. Risk analyses, regulations, market instruments, and ethics all give us useful ways to shape the introduction of a new technology, but no mechanism is enough all by itself. For every new technology, we must leave ourselves time to stop and consider how to engage a wider range of social perspectives. And we should try to answer the following four questions:
- Is there another way to evaluate the need that this technology is addressing?
- Who is most likely to be hurt by this technology?
- Who will win and who will lose with the adoption of this technology?
- How can we learn and improve our understanding of this technology?
These are the technologies of humility that will help repair and strengthen social relationships against disruptions caused by new and emerging technologies. If we keep the negative distributive impacts under control, and consider lower-impact alternatives as needed, then we can use technology not to harm or destroy the world but to make it a truly better place.
Sheila Jasanoff is Professor of Science and Technology Studies (STS) at Harvard Kennedy School. Her book The Ethics of Invention – Technology and the Human Future was published earlier this year.
Be sure to read the other articles in the Decent Digitisation series, and the related reports: