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Michael Sandel is a rockstar of political philosophy. The Harvard professor’s public lectures are attended by tens of thousands, his books sell in millions and he’s hosted TV series all around the world. We ask him to assess the tech industry’s ethical challenges — and how the disruptive forces of digital innovation can be turned towards the common good.
Michael Sandel’s academic credentials are exceptional. A former Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford, he joined Harvard University in 1980, where he is currently the Anne T and Robert M Bass Professor of Government Theory. His publications have been translated into 29 languages and include the bestsellers What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?
Yet Sandel’s celebrity as an intellectual is arguably even more impressive, with a level of global recognition that many entertainment stars would envy.
As well as delivering the BBC’s prestigious Reith Lectures in 2009, Sandel is The Public Philosopher in the BBC Radio 4 series of the same name. He fills not just conference halls but stadia and world-famous venues such as London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, Sydney Opera House and New York’s Public Theater in Central Park.
Tens of millions of people worldwide have viewed Sandel’s Justice course since it became the first Harvard module to be made freely available online and on TV — prompting China Newsweek to name him “the most influential foreign figure of the year” in 2010.
Nineteen million Brazilians watched Sandel lead a debate on Globo TV about corruption, while in Japan he presented a series on ethics for the country’s national TV network, NHK.
But it was in Seoul, South Korea, where his largest live audience gathered, with 14,000 packing into Yonsei University’s stadium to hear him speak.Tech's moral turning point
Now, as ethical questions concerning the application of advanced digital technologies have come to the fore, Sandel has turned his incisive analysis of the modern world to ethics and trust in the digital age.
“As a society we are at the beginning of the debate about the role of technology in democracy but also [what it contributes to a] good life,” Sandel says. “We are realizing that technology is more than a tool for making our lives more efficient.”
This has profound implications, he says, arguing that technology today “raises fundamental ethical questions about community, democracy and what it means to be human.”
That’s a bold statement but the veracity of Sandel’s claim soon becomes apparent when he turns to the examples of big data and AI. These illustrate perfectly just how challenging — and wide-ranging — the ethical questions surrounding technology have become.
“We’re beginning to ask questions such as whether decision-making based on algorithms is fair and whether robots will make work obsolete,” he says. “We’re asking whether smart machines can outthink us and, if they can, whether we should worry about this. We’re asking whether, in an age of big data and social media, privacy has become obsolete.”
People inside and outside the technology industry are now questioning “whether the age of big data and social media is one that is friendly to democracy or corrosive of it,” he notes.
“These are among the most fundamental ethical questions we face, prompted by our new technological powers. Often technology is a tool for the achievement of human purposes and to promote the common good, but today there’s a fear that it will become a force that will redefine how we live and relate to one another.”
Disrupting trustWith technology already redefining social norms, some of these fears are being realized. Sandel identifies privacy as one of the key challenges that we all face.
“Are our traditional notions of privacy compatible with new technologies and with big data, or do we need to reconsider these conceptions?”
In this case, public debate is not keeping pace with the speed of technological change, as recent controversies surrounding Cambridge Analytica and the Russian influence on the 2016 US presidential election demonstrate.
“People find that their personal data is being used for purposes they could scarcely have imagined,” he says — which represents a disturbing loss of privacy.
Added to misgivings about how information is being distorted for corporate or political advantage, such intrusions into our lives have another effect that’s equally corrosive: a loss of trust. “Trust has been a casualty of some technological developments,” says Sandel, pointing to two key trends.
“First, there is a growing public distrust of large technology companies, especially given what we’ve seen recently about the purposes to which personal data has been put by some of the major social media companies. Most of us were unaware of its use in hacking into political campaigns or in disrupting the democratic process.”
He continues: “The second way in which technology puts trust into question has to do with the trust we have in one another that’s necessary for communities to flourish. Trust is needed for a healthy social life, for a sense of community and for democracy. There has to be a certain trust across society among citizens from different backgrounds and walks of life.”
But technology — even as it connects the world — is proving to be divisive in other ways.
“When technology has the tendency to separate us and divide us into narrow bubbles of opinion, this generates a kind of polarization that erodes social trust and it is damaging to community.
“When we’re thinking about the distrust that technology fosters, it’s important to distinguish these two ways in which trust matters and is put in question by technology: the growing mistrust of very powerful social media and technology companies, but also the growing polarization of societies as the information we receive and the opinions we exchange tend to be confined within the narrow band of those with whom we already agree.”
Fortunately, this situation can be improved, he argues. “The connection between the loss of privacy and the erosion of trust has contributed to public anxiety about technology and the direction that it’s taking,” says Sandel.
But it does not have to continue in the same vein, he argues. “Responsible technology companies need to think about respect for privacy as connected to the trust that we will ultimately have as consumers and citizens in the companies and in the technologies they produced.”
Restoring faith in tech
How can a change of direction be achieved? How can we develop a different approach that restores, rather than erodes, our trust in a progressive advance of technology?
In Sandel’s view, it requires nothing less than the development of a new ethic of technology, starting with a change of mindset.
“We need to think of ourselves and of technology companies as responsible for the direction technology takes,” he explains. This first entails “resisting the notion that technology is like the weather, an independent force that we simply have to adapt to. We have to remind ourselves that technology is a set of tools — by now a very sophisticated and colourful set — to achieve human purposes.
“We should not allow technology to define those purposes. We should not be so dazzled by technology that we forget that our freedom depends on viewing ourselves as the masters of the tools we use to achieve our purposes.
“We need to govern technology,” he stresses. “We need to think of it as a set of deliberate human choices and related decisions that need to be governed by ethical considerations — by considerations of the common good.”
A focus on the common good clearly opposes the current direction of travel, according to Sandel, who calls on leaders of technology companies to “think of themselves as responsible for shaping technology towards the common good so that these powers contribute to human flourishing and a sense of community, rather than pose a threat to privacy, communication and democracy.”
Engaging in ethical debates
While he sees it as the responsibility of technology companies to increasingly promote the common good, Sandel does not envision them doing so alone or unprompted. The success of the technology industry in this respect “will depend on the quality of democratic public discourse.”
He explains: “Even the most conscientious companies cannot be expected to figure out [what constitutes] the common good by themselves, without engaging in robust public discussion about the purposes of technology, about the ethical dilemmas that technology raises and about how we should address those ethical challenges.”
This requires the opening up of discourse between the creators of impactful technologies — its direction and uses — and the people affected by those technologies.
“The tech industry cannot answer those questions by itself,” Sandel argues. “Only a sustained lively public debate about the ethical implications of technology can address those questions.
“The most responsible technology companies will be those that welcome and encourage a broader public debate about how technology, rather than being disempowering, can be a force for the common good,” he says.
Facts and myths about Michael Sandel
Interviews Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, live at his high school, persuading the future president to speak to students by sending him a 6 pound bag of jelly beans.
Sits in on Congress and Supreme Court hearings into the impeachment of Richard Nixon while a summer intern at the Washington bureau of The Houston Chronicle.
Simpsons character Montgomery Burns, supposedly modeled physically on Sandel, makes his first appearance on the global hit TV series. Sandel says the connection is an urban legend, but many of the show’s writers did take his courses at Harvard.
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