Chief Morality Officer

By Jathan Sadowski

Innovation is something everybody calls for: almost every company wants to be known for it, and we praise people for becoming innovators at a young age. But is all innovation a good thing? Not necessarily. Implicit in all of this is a desire for responsible innovation.

By this, I mean research and development that not only focuses on the drive to create new technologies, but is also serious about taking into account the –– often thorny and complex –– ethical, social, and environmental aspects of innovation. The social scientist Langdon Winner brought the need for responsibility to light when he proclaimed, “No innovation without representation.”

Technology is not created simply so it can collect dust on a shelf. Something that should be a truism by now is that technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The fact is, the way objects are made shapes the way we use them, and by extension, the values embodied in the object. Lets take, for example, a gun. It isn’t just an inanimate thing. It’s a thing designed with a specific purpose in mind. As Evan Selinger states in a recent article from The Atlantic, “gun design itself embodies behavior-shaping values; its material composition indicates the preferred ends to which it ‘should’ be used.”

In other words, technology and design are not value neutral. There are moral dimensions within the interactions between humans and technology –– dimensions we often don’t think about it, and at times are hidden from us. Technology impacts how we. as individuals, think, behave, and view the world; it shapes how we, as a society, move forward in time and the perspectives we take about the past.

In The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov –– in talking about how Western laboratories and companies indirectly (or even directly) supply technologies that aid authoritarian governments in oppressing their citizens and suppressing dissidents –– rebukes what he views as an, “unquenchable thirst for innovation with complete disregard for its political consequences.”

Hence, responsible innovation means successfully coupling the research done by scientists and engineers with the ethical awareness of humanists and social scientists. Unfortunately, the divide between the social and the technical disciplines runs deep. To say that they tend not to collaborate, let alone even talk to each other, would be a severe understatement.

Fear not! There is still hope for innovative research that doesn’t ignore or bury the social dimensions of technology.

A project funded by the National Science Foundation called Socio-Technical Integration Research(STIR) is helping to bridge the gap and mix some responsibility into innovation. Based out of Arizona State University, STIR embeds humanist in research laboratories around the world so that they can interact with scientists and engineers during the development process and, according to the project’s description, help “integrate broader societal considerations into their work.”

This new method is useful because ethicists who focus on technology and science –– this can include philosophers, social scientists, and other such disciplines –– often must study the moral and social implications of “techno-science” after the fact. But sometimes that’s too late.

In the words of the philosopher of technology Don Ihde: “. . .the science critic must get in on the origins, rather than the results of the technoscientific process. I have long argued that one flaw in applied ethics fields is that they are like the ambulance corps which attends the battlefield –– they fix up the wounded, but do not either prevent the battle or ameliorate its consequences. Only when the critic is, in this metaphor, present at the strategy planning of the generals, can the critic hope to affect the outcomes.”

STIR’s unique approach seeks to rectify this problem by enacting change during the “midstream” phase, which is where the actual research, lab work, and development occurs. This is contrasted by the “upstream” where decisions are made about who receives funding and the “downstream” where regulation is imposed on –– and where ethicists typically find their first opportunity to study –– existing technology and science.

Since it’s incarnation in 2009 STIR has achieved quite an impressive array of accomplishments. The project has placed social scientists in more than 30 labs on three different continents and published results in a number of top-tier academic outlets.

To be sure, not all laboratories are immediately welcome to idea of opening their doors to a humanist outsider who observes and interacts with the engineers and scientists. But eventually these misgivings fade as the researchers warmup to the idea of working with the embedded humanist who is there to help raise awareness about and infuse social responsibility into the innovation process.

A strong argument can be made that laboratories which receive funding through government agencies like the National Science Foundation have an obligation to build social responsibility into their research. After all, their money is coming from taxpayers and STIR is just helping to fulfill this duty.

However, I think that private technology companies ought to also take up this mantle of responsible innovation by hiring what can be called “in-house ethicists” who work side-by-side with the company’s engineers, scientists, and executives. Of course it can’t be said that private firms have a social obligation because of who’s paying the bills. Most private firms are, in large part, using private money to fuel research and development. But, given the inherent social and ethical dimensions of technology, responsibility and awareness should be key characteristics no matter where the innovation is originating.

Now, I can certainly see how, from a business perspective, these may seem like high prices to pay. Why should a corporation spend more on hiring one or more ethicists when its first duty is towards shareholders, not the general public? Here’s the rub: I don’t think it’s an either-or situation. It’s possible to to do good via self-interested motivations.

For example, the “conscious capitalism” movement, which is fronted by John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, is focused on achieving both business success and social good.

It’s easy to imagine how tech companies can benefit from having an ethicist on staff. For instance, Facebook has had more than one encounter with public concern over their dubious methods of handling privacy. Most recently they’ve received heat for their use of facial-recognition software. An ethicists can help sidestep these moral mishaps before they even happen.

If Facebook can have a team of social scientists sifting through their massive reserves of data –– and subsequently discovering new ways for the company to generate revenue –– they ought to also have a team of ethicists questioning whether that data should be collected and retained in the first place. It’s good for business and it’s good for everybody else.

Following suit from STIR, the next innovation in technology needs to come from within the company. I think it’s time to create a new C-level job –– The CMO: Chief Morality Officer.

Jathan Sadowski is a graduate student at Arizona State University studying applied ethics and the human and social dimensions of science and technology. Follow him on Twitter @jathansadowski.