Book Review: Navigating a way through the ethical maze of new technologies

  • Technology Is Not Neutral: A Short Guide To Technology Ethics, Stephanie Hare, London Publishing Partnership, Feb 2022
  • The Political Philosophy of AI: Mark Coeckelbergh, Polity Press, Feb 2022

New technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) raise formidable political and ethical challenges, and these two books each provide a different kind of practical toolkit for examining and analysing these challenges.  Through investigating a range of viewpoints and examples they thoroughly disprove the claim that ‘technology is neutral’, often used as a cop-out by those who refuse to take responsibility for the technologies they have developed or promoted.

Mark Coeckelbergh is Professor of Philosophy of Media and Technology at the University of Vienna, and his book ‘The Political Philosophy of AI’ encourages us to reflect on what advanced technologies such as AI are already doing to us, in order to prevent us from becoming their helpless victims.  In many ways the book is more about political philosophy than about AI, and is none the worse for that.  Coeckelbergh points out that although a great deal has been written about the technology and the ethics of AI, there has been little thought on the impacts of AI from the perspective of political philosophy, and he sets out to correct this omission.

Political theorist Langdon Winner has argued that technology is political and observes that instead of bringing greater democratisation and equality, new technologies may well give even more power to those who already have a great deal of it.  Coeckelbergh’s book exposes the political power that AI wields alongside its technical power and shows how new technologies such as AI are fundamentally entangled with changes in society.  He explains how the political issues we care about in society are changed and take on new meanings and urgency in the light of technological developments such as advances in robotics, AI, and biotechnology, arguing that to understand the rights and wrongs of new technologies we need to consider them from the perspective of political philosophy as well as ethics, and that this will help us to clarify the questions and issues which the technologies raise.

‘The Political Philosophy of AI’ sets out the theories of political philosophy chapter-by-chapter as they relate to the major elements of politics today – freedom, justice, equality, democracy, power, and the environment – and for each element explores the consequences that we can expect as AI becomes established in society.  This serves to frame the challenges that the technology will bring and act as an evaluative framework to assess its impacts.  Coeckelbergh also uses the analysis to develop a political philosophy for AI itself, which helps us to not only understand and question our political values but also gain a deeper insight into the nature of politics and humanity.

Coeckelbergh’s book asks questions rather than gives answers, and this may disappoint some readers.  But this approach is in line with the philosophical approach that politics should be publicly discussed in a participative and inclusive way, rather than subject to autocratic decisions made by a powerful minority.  That there is virtually no public debate about the wishes of the UK government and others to use AI to transform society says as much about our political system as it does about AI.

“That there is virtually no public debate
about the wishes of the UK government and others to use AI
to transform society says as much about our political system
as it does about AI.”

Stephanie Hare’s book ‘Technology is not neutral: A short guide to technology ethics‘ does give solid proposals for addressing the political and technical issues that digital technologies raise. But Hare, like Coeckelbergh, does not tell her readers where red lines should be drawn or comment on whether a line has been crossed, recognising that how these questions are resolved is also a question of ethics.  The book sets out a process of ethical examination which can help us decide how to use technology to maximise benefits and minimise harms.  Written with humour and warmth, it provides a stimulating contrast to the more academic approach of Coeckelbergh’s book.

Hare, an independent researcher and technology journalist, begins her analysis by setting out the reasons why technology is not neutral, contrary to the claims of tech entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg and Eric Schmidt and interest groups in Silicon Valley and government.  The clincher is perhaps this quote from a speech given by Tim Cook, Apple Inc’s CEO, when he took on the role in 2019:

“Too many seem to think that good intentions excuse away harmful outcomes.  But whether you like it or not, what you build and what you create define who you are.  It feels a bit crazy that anyone should have to say this, but if you built a chaos factory, you can’t dodge responsibility for the chaos.”

The book examines two extended case studies – the use of facial recognition, and the apps and digital health tools the UK government attempted to use to control the spread of coronavirus in 2020/21 – and assesses their effectiveness and the risks emerging from their use.  Hare approaches the use of facial recognition technologies through a set of key questions, examining the impacts and issues systematically and assessing the potential for harm resulting from different applications of facial recognition.  She sets out a set of ethical dimensions – metaphysics, epistemology, political philosophy, logic, aesthetics, and ethics, and shows how to use them to analyse who benefits and who will lose out from the use of a new technology.  The unsurprising conclusions are that regulators and government are unwilling to stop the proliferation of facial recognition technologies; facial recognition is inextricably bound to the exercise of power; and many applications have a high risk of harm.

“Regulators and government are unwilling to stop
the proliferation of facial recognition technologies;
facial recognition is inextricably bound to the exercise
of power; and many applications have a high risk of harm.”


‘Technology is not neutral’ is worth reading for the section on coronavirus health apps alone, and the eye-opening insights it gives into how new technologies are used and how decisions are made about their implementation.  It tells the story of the UK government’s failed attempts to use technology to control the spread of coronavirus, examining the approach the government took to immunity passports, exposure notification apps, QR check-in codes, and vaccine passports.  Again, the conclusions are not surprising: that there are formidable ethical issues associated with each of these tools, and that failure was inevitable given the incompetence and corruption with which the schemes were implemented and the lack of a functioning test-trace-isolate system and support for those who were self-isolating.

The book concludes that a culture of tech ethics is urgently needed among developers, researchers, and those responsible for implementing the use of new technologies, and suggests various actions which could help to establish such a culture.

These books will welcomed by those with an interest in applied political science and ethics relating to new technologies, and Stephanie Hare’s book, in particular, is an accessible and enjoyable read for the non-professional reader.

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