“Technology’s Impact on Morality”
Communications of the ACM, April 2022, Vol. 65 No. 4, Pages 15-16
By Logan Kugler
“Technology without morality is barbarous; morality without technology is impotent.—Freeman Dyson”
Can technology affect human morality?
This is not an esoteric test question from a college philosophy class, but a real, growing concern among leading technologists and thinkers. Technologies like social media, smartphones, and artificial intelligence can create moral issues at scale, and technology experts specifically and society generally are struggling to navigate these issues.
On the one hand, technology can empower us with better information on the consequences of our actions, as when we use the Internet to research how to reduce our environmental footprint. In the past, such information may have been inaccessible or impossible to source, but today we can easily arm ourselves with data that helps us make choices we perceive to be more moral.
On the other hand, technology can bring out our worst behaviors. Social media platforms can serve us content that enrages or depresses us, making it more (or less) likely we will take immoral actions based on our feelings. These platforms also can be used by bad actors to take immoral actions more easily.
Not to mention, technology companies themselves may use their creations in ways that, intentionally or accidentally, cause real harm.
One prominent example of how technology can impact morality is Facebook. The company’s social media platform makes it easier for us to connect with people and issues we care about, which enables us to take moral actions, like supporting a friend having a hard time or raising money for an important cause.
However, the same functionality that allows moral choices also enables immoral ones, as Facebook whistle-blower Francis Haugen told the U.S. Congress. Haugen testified in October 2021 that Facebook knowingly served content containing hate speech and misinformation to its users, since that increased engagement. Some of the users receiving that content then decided to speak and act in hateful ways, which caused mental and physical harm to others. In one scenario, Haugen said, the company’s technology was even used to fan the flames of genocide in Myanmar, literally costing lives.
“The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats and more combat,” Haugen told Congress. “In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people.”
Examples like Facebook have experts increasingly worried about links between our technology and our moral behavior (or the lack thereof).
In fact, these days the question should not be “Can technology affect our morality?”, but “how does technology affect our morality?” [emphasis added]
About the Author:
Logan Kugler is a freelance technology writer based in Tampa, FL, USA. He is a regular contributor to CACM and has written for nearly 100 major publications.
- Allyn, B. Here are 4 key points from the Facebook whistleblower’s testimony on Capitol Hill, NPR, Oct. 5, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/10/05/1043377310/facebook-whistleblower-frances-haugen-congress
- Leib, M. et al. The corruptive force of AI-generated advice, Cornell University, Feb. 15, 2021, https://arxiv.org/abs/2102.07536
- Samuel, S. It’s hard to be a moral person. Technology is making it harder., Vox, Aug. 3, 2021, https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/22585287/technology-smartphones-gmail-attention-morality
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