vineri, 4 noiembrie 2011

Ethics 1/0

Bucharest Conference in Applied Ethics 2011, 4th edition, "Ethical Aspects in New and Emerging Technologies", 2010-10-28, Amfiteatrul Mircea Florian, Facultatea de Filosofie, Universitatea din Bucuresti

Just like Cristi Ducu promised, the 4th edition of Bucharest Conference in Applied Ethics (BCAE) went big. It had international attendance and the promise that over the years BCAE will grow in importance as the event gathering ethicians from all across Europe (maybe even the whole world?) and establishing a communication and partnership network between them. This time the use of English all throughout the conference was a must, as almost half of the audience was foreign. This blog post is also in English to respect and reflect the international aspect of the conference.

Just like every year, I attended less than I would've liked of the conference, so I will only speak about the panels I've witnessed. Also, since a few days have passed already and since I would not be able to compile a consistent and unitary report, my coverage will only consist of very specific ideas I found worthy of mentioning.

The first panel I attended, "Privacy vs. Democracy" addressed the ethical dilemmas arisen from the moral obligation of granting free access to information and the right to free speech and the need of maintaining control over the level of privacy for the information shared. I was quite surprised no one brought up WikiLeaks, it is probably the most illustrative case on the matter. Instead, the panel opened up with Adrian Florea's presentation of the NetCity project of providing underground broadband internet coverage to the whole of Bucharest. No ethical dilemmas here, as it was rightfully pointed out from the audience, but somehow the discussion was drawn towards sensible topics such as: how does NetCity establishes the rental cost of its network or whose responsibility is to fix the glitches in the internet coverage provided to the end user.

It is possible that Mr. Florea felt a bit cornered, since he rather swiftly directed the conversation towards more neutral topics, such as online's corporations attitude towards individual privacy. And so we got to facebook, the port of choice for internet moralists, and to the way in which user data can be used either by facebook or by third party applications without user consent. And this is a tricky one: the user consent is there, embedded in the terms and conditions of subscribing to the service that nobody reads. While this is true, one might say, it serves the corporation just right to hide such sensible points inside a 20-page document that nobody will ever read. My take on this is that, whatever the default settings are, the service you subscribe to will make some decisions for you via these default settings. The internet service, has thus two options: either getting awfully boring by forcing the user to make all the privacy (and usage) choices required and to lose business by this decrease of usability or go into the ethical grey area. The business choice is obvious. However, the moral and responsible company will strive to clean the ethical aspect of its business which, in this case, can be done by increasing users' awareness on the service provided. This can indeed be costly and, while it may look like a bad economic solution on the short term, on the medium and long term the benefits of having more and more educated clients creates a basis of trust and healthy economic choices that I think is essential for a sustainable economic environment. And this is true for all industries and all segments of the product supply chain, not only online enterprises.

It has also been discussed what attitude governments should have towards the online information flow and the risks attached to it and the auditorium seemed to agree on the fact that somehow, the government should interfere. I tend to disagree, or at most concede that, should a governmental intervention appear as necessary, this should be minimal, at most. My view is that the governments, the corporations and the civil society share the decision power on the market, and any increase in the authority of one of these actors means a decrease in the authority of another, or of both others. It is thus natural that an increase in authority of the civil society, of the individual (obvious after the informational boom and obvious in the online environment) is perceived as a threat by the government, so the government tends to interfere to preserve its status quo. If it does it by enforcing any kind of laws over communication, this is, in my opinion, censorship. Instead, should the government be sincere about wishing nothing but the well-being of its citizens (which equals a quantity of bullshit the size of Himalaya in my opinion), it should strive for increasing the educational level, the (computer) literacy of the individual. This way, the market regulates itself. Again, this is true for a lot more aspects of the economy (as well as politics, for that matter) than the ICT.

An interesting parallel has been drawn between the way the banks are managing customer money and the way the online corporations are managing user data. While each of the two has its specifics, it is true they confront a common set of risks associated with asset management. Therefore, management of this risk should be their concern, with the governments as the watch dog making sure the corporations don't lose sight of the customer's best interest. When the corporations will realize the risk decrease brought about by a more educated pool of clients, increasing education will be a very viable business decision, and the proactive stance will be the new competing environment Warren Buffet predicted.

Professor Vasile Baltac was the next speaker, speaking about a digital agenda for Europe which is apparently a current EU concern. He touched some interesting theoretical points, such as the four pillars of internet usability (infrastructure, affordability, content quality and ability to use, or knowledgeability), or the four user skills levels (awareness, literacy, competence and expertise). I feel the need to alter professor Baltac's view on "good" and "bad" content and to adjust his affirmation that the Bible is a "good" book, while Mein Kampf is a "bad" book. Beyond the highly debatable sentence, I strongly believe the valuation of things as "good" or "bad" is always subjective and should be the exclusive concern of the affected group (the stakeholders). Online ethics and the privacy issues have been reiterated, with a short glimpse at professor Baltac's belief that low quality online content should be "moderated". Whilst I agree to the freedom of an online enterprise to keep or throw away the content that it sees fit (including user-generated content), I will say again that moderation is a form of control and the first step towards downright censorship, and should only be used with great caution.

Last panel of the day had the building of an ethical infrastructure as a starting point, with an emphasis on the health care organizations. Led by a very pessimistic professor Valentin Muresan, the panel showed the increasing preoccupation of addressing the ethical issues in health care and research. It was the foreign guests who were the most active here, pointing to either the increasing importance of bioethics and the increasing number of bioethicians in the US, to the increasing request for ethical expertise in fields such as nanotechnology or to the development of the interdisciplinary academic programs providing both medical and ethical qualifications. Professor Muresan's pessimism looked a bit out of place in this context. There is, I agree, a lack of interest towards ethics, and the applied areas of philosophy in general, and a philosophical project, as applied as it might be, is a harder sell than the more lucrative ones. But this went on for some millennia already and complaining about it will do little to change it. Should be noted here that when forming bioethicians, the path followed is usually by giving ethical training to a biologist rather than giving biology training to an ethician. This is another source of frustration for ethicians, but the matter will fade along with the establishment of bioethics as a distinct domain, equally distanced from both biology and ethics. Religion would also have something to say to the future bioethics specialist. Emanoel Roman noted as bad the influence of a strong Romanian Orthodox Church over the field, as the church claims some sort of monopoly over deciding between good and bad. However, I believe a responsible bioethics study program should be closely related to axiology, and the official opinions of the churches should not be neglected. By the way, but for some semester courses in the first philosophy years, I have no idea about axiology being studied anywhere in Romania, which I think is a real shame.

The panel ended with Mirela Nemtanu's presentation on L'Oreal best practices. I thought it was a great intervention, both dense with information and with an easy to follow dynamics, supported by a very well-documented and carefully crafted presentation and delivered in the most corporate correct manner. Here's the points I extracted:

  • "not knowing the law is not an excuse for not applying the law"
  • Mrs. Nemtanu said - and probably believes - L'Oreal has a healthy organizational culture. I am just curios on how or if this is tested in any way
  • the concepts of green chemistry, label ethics and ecodesign and the Ethisphere Institute
  • L'Oreal's strive to stop tests on animals and the obstacles that, paradoxically enough, come from the legislative framework of some countries
  • L'Oreal ethical department is ISO9001 certified (!) I find this both admirable and a waste of money.
On Saturday I only attended one of the four afternoon panels, namely the one started by Diana's presentation on Privacy vs. Sharing in Online Mentoring. I've met Diana at last year's BCAE and during the year passed my admiration for her has grown exponentially. I am proud to be able to call her a friend, and I didn't want to miss her presentation by any means. My view will therefore be biased, more biased than usual, as I never pretended objectivity anyway.

Now, compared to Diana's last year presentation - which was truly great, this one is quite disadvantaged. The thesis is weaker and it looks like a particular case of an ampler area, the documentation was less adequate and one could read between the lines that it was an ad-hoc, hastily compiled intervention. Plus the corporate smell that came with the WYGU logo, Diana's tribute to her employer. Nevertheless, it was the best presentation of the panel and, although I felt the need to challenge Diana's take on things almost every step of the way, there was plenty to learn from it. The ethical issue: how much you need to share, how much you want to share and how much you should want to share both as a mentor and as a mentee for an online mentoring relation to be functional and gain maximum efficiency.

Sursa foto
Then came the porn guy. Marco Annoni, from the University of Milan, who felt the need to pull a high-school prank by bringing forth a subject provocative enough in itself (pornography), so that there will be no real need for a strong thesis or a crafted argumentation. He was even half right, as his presentation drew quite some discussions around the subject. Here's why I thought it was weak, though:
  • one of the strong arguments in defending pornography was that it can grow money for charitable causes. While this is true in theory, I'm guessing the possibility to actually happen is very low, as pornography entrepreneurs have quite a different profile than people engaging in charities. Also, charity does very well without porn. Also, Mr. Annoni couldn't name one case of a pornographic enterprise fueling money to charity. Rare as it might be, I'm sure it exists and his inability to name one shows a lack in documentation. I see nothing wrong with charities being funded by the porn industry. I just doubt it will become common ground.
  • In defense of porn, Mr. Annoni invoked the harm principle. Quite handy, the utilitarian view in this case, quite inconsistent as well. It is hard to say if there is any harm done by porn consumption to children, psychically unstable adults and porn actors or how much, but this is a task for psychology, that Mr. Annoni made no mention of, like a good corporate marketeer of the early corporate era.
  • Saying "porn is just as bad as a lot more socially accepted industries" is a highly flawed argument in defense of porn. If nothing else, it is an argument against the other industries. Yet this is how most of the body of Mr. Annoni's presentation was built.
I believe myself to be fairly open-minded. I have nothing against porn (on the contrary) and I'm an occasional consumer. I have quite a libertarian stance on it. But there are plenty of moral issues to be addressed in regards to the porn industry. The ethicians should bring porn to the ethical debate table, but it should be done in a serious and responsible manner. If, from the ethics standpoint, we treat porn like horny teenagers, we will get the results horny teenagers do. Namely, chuckles.

Quite appropriate, the presentation on porn was followed by one from a military background. Mr. Victor Greu from the Military Technical Academy. I will be harsh on him, and this should not be taken the wrong way, but his presentation was one of the most boring I've ever seen, checking most of the items on the list of things to avoid when making a presentation. All throughout what seemed an infinite number of slides the same static, standard layout template was used. All slides were made up of walls of text so long that it was hard enough to read them entirely at the speed of Mr. Greu, and any attempt in doing so would have resulted  in at least double the amount of time reserved for the presentation. This is way a big part of the presentation was simply skipped. Oddly enough, the most intelligible parts were leapfrogged, the ones not containing formulas with insufficiently detailed variables. The subject of the presentation, if I understood correctly, was the paradigm shift brought about by the information age, when information is becoming an essential commodity, substituting the fixed means of the industrial age. This leads to a so-called Knowledge Based Society (KBS), which will eventually require every individual to increase his technical abilities to fit in this new scheme. That's pretty much all I could extract from Mr. Greu's PowerPoint, I stopped following somewhere between slides 3 and 4.

The last presentation of the panel belonged to Mr. Vlad Niculescu Dinca and talked about a case study for the implementation of a Geo-spatial Information System in a local police department and the challenges arisen in the process. It was the most interesting subject, and it was well worth knowing more about how new technologies are accepted and gain their place in our daily lives or in our professional lives. It is the encounter between "the way it has always been done" and "the way it could be done better, but with some additional effort", always a fierce one. It was maybe Mr. Greu's anticlimactic presentation that almost emptied the room and sucked all of the attendance focus, or maybe Mr. Niculescu Dinca's way of speaking about his subject, but somehow the subject, albeit interesting, didn't stir the amount of debate it would normally have stirred. Me, for one, I was dying for a break. I got the parts of a script, I liked the idea of a script of any kind being composed of description, inscription and prescription, all of which cannot be normative.

I want to draw attention on one very interesting article from Mr. Niculescu Dinca that I've just found here. This is in line with the Post-phenomenology and Technology Ethics presentation that Robert Arnautu held last year in the Phenomenology and Ethics conference and, given that Mr. Niculescu Dinca and Mr. Arnautu were together, I would assume technology ethics and design-embedded ethics are subjects of a common research program.

That was it for me, I'm sure I've missed some very interesting presentations but it was impossible to see them all, as Saturday's 8 panels, went on simultaneously in two separate halls. One solution to this would be recording of the entire conference and uploading it online. This is a promise Cristi Ducu made last year as well, but so far I haven't seen any podcast of any of the presentations from last year.

As a general impression, the conference was bigger and better than all the previous ones. It had real depth and amplitude and it showed. The variety of speakers increased and the international coverage was real this time. The logistics part was flawless, and even the dialogue ethics, a shortcoming last year, was resolved. The start and end times were respected and the Q&A sessions were a lot more organized than last year. The subject of the conference drew plenty of interest, as well. It looked, overall, a grown-up and mature event, organized in the highest professional manner. From here on, there is only place for growth.

My sincere congratulations to Cristian Ducu, professor Muresan and the ethics department of the Faculty of Philosophy for this event. For me it is another confirmation that a combination between the right drives and an appropriate amount of passion is unstoppable on the way to success.

4 comentarii:

Cristian Ducu spunea...

Thank you, Leo, for your straightforward article! I will refer here only to two issues:

1) Last year podcasts, actually, only three of them, are here: http://www.bcae.ro/2010_participants.php I am going to upload more podcasts for this edition, but we are limited by the space available on the server.

2) The logistics part was taken care of by my incredible colleagues: Monica Matei, Teodora Raicu, and Isabella Trifan. I am very proud of them.

The 5th edition will be launched in maximum 2 weeks. So, I would like to invite you to visit the BCAE website -- www.bcae.ro -- regularly. We are going to make it highly dynamic.

bhuttu spunea...

Why not try trilulilu.ro or another web media service for uploading podcasts? This takes all the pressure off the site server.

Diana Constantinescu spunea...

I always like to read your conference summaries because you have the proper impartiality and neutral tone in both describing and assessing the presentations. It's a mirror which we all need to look at in order to improve our performances in the future. I for one have taken all criticism constructively and will do my best to prepare better, less corporate-like, and more profoundly next time. Thank you for an amazing feedback!

bhuttu spunea...

Way, waaay too kind, Diana, but then I expect no less from you. Between the two of us, I am the one in the position to express gratitude, even in regards to this years' BCAE. We both know this, but let's stop exchanges online niceties for now. Bit too cheesy for my taste. :)