Ethics of invention: Taming our technologies

536271a-i1Technological innovation in fields from genetic engineering to cyberwarfare is accelerating at a breakneck pace, but ethical deliberation over its implications has lagged behind. Thus argues Sheila Jasanoff — who works at the nexus of science, law and policy — in The Ethics of Invention, her fresh investigation. Not only are our deliberative institutions inadequate to the task of oversight, she contends, but we fail to recognize the full ethical dimensions of technology policy. She prescribes a fundamental reboot.

Ethics in innovation has been given short shrift, Jasanoff says, owing in part to technological determinism, a semi-conscious belief that innovation is intrinsically good and that the frontiers of technology should be pushed as far as possible. This view has been bolstered by the fact that many technological advances have yielded financial profit in the short term, even if, like the ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons once used as refrigerants, they have proved problematic or ruinous in the longer term.

There are contingent issues. Numerous government and professional ethical advisory bodies already exist, looking at research with human subjects and specific fields of innovation. But they tend to have a technocratic orientation that focuses on cost–benefit analysis narrowly construed, with an emphasis on those factors that can be quantified or assigned market value. Intangibles, such as worker morale or the health of communities, are often neglected. Meanwhile, technological disasters such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico lay bare flaws in the conception, design or implementation of technology, at least after the fact. But because such failures are by definition unintended, they are typically exempted from deep ethical concern by planners and regulators.

What we too often fail to grapple with, writes Jasanoff, is that technology is value-laden from start to finish. From the innovator’s intuition of a desired end to the development of the practical means of achieving that end — as well as its application, distribution, ownership and ultimate impact on society and the world at large — choices about technology are inextricably intertwined with value judgements at every stage.

Jasanoff argues for an entirely new body of ethical discourse, going beyond technical risk assessment to give due weight to economic, cultural, social and religious perspectives. The Ethics of Invention is an eloquent meditation on these problems. Jasanoff thoughtfully discusses the limits of conventional risk analysis, with its biases in favour of innovation and quantification, and looks at the challenges posed by specific developments in biotechnology, genetic engineering and information technology for surveillance. The book helps to pinpoint recurring patterns in contemporary technological debates and to frame what is at stake in their outcomes.

Read the book review in Nature