How best to embed ethics and moral perspectives into the digital innovation process is today an urgent concern. Yet the pioneers in personal computer and software did not believe this complicated challenge required special analysis. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, seminal progenitors of today’s digital world, saw themselves as trying to bring the computer into the service of the needs of individuals, from the outset. Over time, they applied their own sense of humanity, more or less intuitively, to the task of designing humanistic conceptions into personal computers, software and later networks. Their work helped define the digital shape and capabilities of organizations or enterprises, whether for-profit, non-profit or government agencies, as well as systems used by individuals.
The public policies of the late 20th century largely, almost wholly, accepted that the interests of digital pioneers more or less matched those of the great masses of Americans and indeed consumers of digital devices the world over. The visions of Apple and humans on Main Street were basically in sync. If there was not a perfect alliance of interests between digital innovators and their flock, the overlap seemed at the time good enough to endure.
Twenty years into a new century, few knowledgeable observers of the digital world would present such a sanguine picture. Today there is intense pursuit of ways to embed ethical thinking and moral reasoning into decisions about digital products and services. Nearly all the approaches share a conceptual framework and adopt a prosecutorial mind-set. Some outside body, like Facebook’s eminent content overseers known as the Oversight Board, are tasked with evaluating, usually post hoc, how well the engineers’ work has performed in the messy real world. The ideal seems to be to create a super-human umpire, or all-knowing panel of judges, who will make the right call.
I have sympathies with the “bag on the side” approach to ethics, tacking on an “ethics” feature after the primary design is completed. After all, criminal procedure follows this model closely. We rarely punish people for imagining immoral acts. Instead we adjudicate behavior and pass judgment on human actions. In the emerging field of “hate” speech, for example, we sometimes sanction speech on digital platforms.
But how humans handle improper or inappropriate speech won’t do as a model for, say, how to evaluate whether the design of a new Tesla adequately secures driver safety, or whether Instagram, with its endless stream of idealized bodies, is increasing thoughts of self-harm and eating disorders in young people.
If don’t want to present another wrinkle, or version, of the regulatory approach– the umpire framework–for digital ethics. Instead, I believe ethics must co-evolve with engineering practice, and that the moral dimension of technological innovation must be present at the creation of any digital tool or service.
Based on the way tech operates these days, your reaction may be to find my proposal audacious (or naive). I am insisting that ethics shouldn’t come from after-the-fact enforcement, but rather must flow from within, from the mind of the engineer and designer. Yes, I am asking that come full circle and return to the ideal that, in their innovative prime, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates may actually have known best.
In this ethics thought-experiment, however, I propose to give Jobs and Gates (and all the contemporary technology developers who are their heirs) a twist: an infusion of Vannevar Bush (1890-1974), the most influential electrical engineer–in the realm of politics, society and information science–of the 20th century. Bush was the creator of the world’s most powerful electro-mechanical computers in the 1930s, and is best known for his extraordinary influence on U.S. technology policy, first as director of military research for President Roosevelt during World War II. In July 1945, he published a visionary essay (“As We May Think”) on the future of information storage and retrieval. Software pioneer Ted Nelson credits it as conceiving the notion of hypertext, and no less than the founders of Google credit Bush for anticipating the search engine specifically and the Internet more broadly.
As organizer of the Manhattan Project, Bush often spoke on behalf of the U.S. government about the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. He also envisioned a National Science Foundation (duly created by Congress in 1950) to support long-term civilian research. I wrote Bush’s biography, Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush Engineer of the American Century , and this year I published a companion volume, The Essential Writings of Vannevar Bush. The 56 selections range across information technology, invention, national security and the expectations and norms for scientists and engineers. In particular, I wish here to expand upon some radical ideas of Bush’s from one essay among his Essential Writings, “The Qualities of a Profession.”
Engineering is the field Bush cared most about, but he also cared about the practice of science and the social and ethical obligations of innovators working on the border between technology and science, applied engineering and research for the discovery of new knowledge.
Bush’s’ father was a Unitarian minister, and in constructing a foundation for an ethics of innovation, Bush draws on old – even ancient traditions of how the talented and the influential should behave in the world and make sense of it. In “The Qualities of a Profession,” which Bush wrote in 1939 for a speech to a national gathering of engineers, he presents the bracing idea of the engineer and the innovator as something like a religious minister or a “shaman”–a wise person and spirit master.
Arguing that the engineer and creative technologist possess roots in ancient spirituality and in the human search for meaning stretching “far back” in time, Bush wrote: “In every…tribe there was some sort of medicine man. He was a man apart, the adviser of the clan rather than its titular leader. He spoke, in his field, with authority, and this rested upon a special knowledge which he was supposed to possess.”
Bush added, “the medicine man was the progenitor of the professional man of today,” and he divined a special connection to the technologist. Like engineers and techno-scientific innovators today, such spiritual leaders “trained neophytes, subjected them to a long period of apprenticeship, initiated them into mysteries and inculcated in them pride in the cult.” The shaman then, as the technologist does now, Bush wrote, “sat as an adviser in councils of the mighty. But more essential than all of these, he ministered to the people.”
To Bush, the concept of “ministry” is central of understanding any ethics of innovation. “Ministry carries with it the ideas of dignity and authority,” he wrote in “The Qualities of a Profession.” For Bush, ministry “connotes no weakness and offers no apology.” He added, “There is no fog of subservience surrounding the concept,” and yet the animating impulse for the technologist “lies in intelligent, aggressive, devoted ministration to the people.”
The idea and practice of ministry isn’t taught in engineering or computer science schools, but maybe an ethos of service to others, irrespective of financial gain and glory, must now be considered an essential part of the education of a technologist. Perhaps consciousness-raising through an engagement with the Bushian belief in “ministration to the people” will provide support for ethical thinking at the start of the innovation process, not only once innovations are released onto the digital world. [Konstantinos Karachalios, a top executive with IEEE, the global organization of engineers, made a closely-related point in his talk at the Techonomy 2019 conference. -ed.]
No doubt, people, including perhaps government regulators, can and should try to impose moral discipline from the outside on innovators of the digital world. But we should also be wise enough to accept the best forms of ethical reasoning from within — and recognize that technological innovation, as much as art and science, crime and punishment, harbors an inner moral life that marches to its own drummer. All we can ask is that in their education, and coming-of-age experiences, innovators find their inner ethical beat and steadfastly listen to it. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates would approve!
G. Pascal Zachary is a former senior writer for the Wall Street Journal and has taught courses on the past, present and future of technological change at Arizona State University, Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. He is the editor of The Essential Writings of Vannevar Bush (Columbia University Press, 2022), and the author of Showstopper, on the making of a systems software program at Microsoft.