Benchmark Ethics: Technology: Advanced and Appropriate

Over the past three years the core mission of the Institute for Business, Technology, and Ethics has remained constant: to examine in a positive, constructive way the contemporary intersection of business, technology, and ethics. Wherever those three meet — or wherever they should meet — we are interested.

With respect to the first and third items of that ménage-à-trois, we often add the adjectives good business and sound ethics in our IBTE statements. But what is the appropriate adjective for “technology”? What kind of technology deserves or requires our attention? What should we promote?

“Advanced” technology is one way we often describe it. Advanced often means “more recent” or “newer.” The IBTE was founded to examine, for example, the business impact and ethical dimensions of advanced computing technology — not the abacus, slide rule, cash register, or adding machine. We look at the business and ethics sides of advanced communication technology associated with the internet — not the printing press or the touch-tone telephone.

The exponential growth of technology in speed, complexity, and power — and its massive impact around the entire globe on business, work, and on all aspects of human life — that is the advanced technology needing careful analysis. Now much of this technological advance is positive, good news. Advances in communication technologies can help people link together, share helpful information over vast distances, and so on. Small, start-up businesses, as well as large multinational corporations, have been empowered by such advanced technologies.

But not every advance in life (or business) is desirable. An “advanced stage” of cancer or heart disease is not the news we want to hear. So it is not enough to say that we want to promote advanced technology. We can hardly avoid it, of course, so we must pay close attention but promoting it is a more complex issue. Edward Tenner’s magnificent Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (Alfred Knopf, 1996) remains my favorite book on the paradoxes and trade-offs that are part of all technological advance.

From my own background as a social critic and academic, the adjective I have liked in front of technology for nearly thirty years is “appropriate.” It was British economist, E. F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Harper & Row, 1973), that popularized the phrase “appropriate technology.” It is unfortunate that the title of Schumacher’s book might lead some high-speed browser minds to infer that “appropriate technology” means that “big is not beautiful.” Wrong.

Sometimes it is appropriate to develop a big, fast, powerful, complex technology (air traffic control systems, many manufacturing processes). Sometimes it’s even beautiful. The point is that not all technologies are appropriate to all contexts. Something from outside the technological mindset must help it figure out what is appropriate.

Is it enough to say that business interests and perspectives shall be the sole judge of what technology is appropriate? Not if we think of business in the narrow sense of “profit-driven enterprises providing goods and services.” A somewhat larger perspective must keep other questions on the table. Values other than maximizing short-term profit will be needed.

Schumacher described agrarian societies outside of the industrialized west in which “intermediate” technologies like tools and simple machines would be tremendously helpful — but where misguided development efforts instead tried to build huge, high-powered factories that were totally disruptive and negative in their impact on the host country (and failed to make a profit as well!). The manufacture and sale of intermediate technologies (like agricultural tools and small machines) was, in this case, “appropriate” both to the need for profit and the skill and context of the workforce.

What are some of the criteria of technological appropriateness? This sort of list is best developed with input from all the stakeholders in a given business and technological context but here are some proposals to start such conversations:

Appropriate technology is technology that “fits” with

  • the task being carried out (effectiveness, reliability, etc.);
  • the skills and needs of the users (safety, ease of use, challenge, dignity, etc.);
  • the core mission and values of the organization in which it is adopted;
  • the culture of the business, organization, or workgroup;
  • the broader society and culture hosting the business-technology complex;
  • the natural habitat (non-polluting, sustainable, etc.).

I suspect that any talk of restrictions makes some technologists and entrepreneurs chafe. But these qualifications of “appropriateness” still leave huge territory for technological innovation and advance. Never has our world been in such need — and never has there been such opportunity — for brilliant technological thinking and business entrepreneurship. But it will all “bite back” in a calamitous way if we do not proceed in a careful way. Let’s have technology that is both advanced and appropriate.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.