Talking basics of ethics…

Champion Nr. 1: Alice Thwaite.

Alice Thwaite is a technology ethicist. She is the founder of Hattusia, a tech ethics consultancy and the Echo Chamber Club, an institute dedicated to researching what makes information environments democratic in a digital era.

In 2019 I attended a workshop named “Ethics by design”, held by Alice in Berlin. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, a friend had invited me and I had the feeling I could learn a lot. Looking back, I am happy I attended. In the months before the workshop, I was involved in many discussions around ethics of artificial intelligence and also in an audit process at my company. But I lacked the basics. That changed in Alice’s Workshop. These are the basics I want to share with you. But booking a workshop with Alice for your organization would be even better, of course. So feel free to get in touch with her :-)!

First we need to understand the word ethics: what are ethics? What are ethics in a tech context?

There are many definitions of ethics, but Alice defines it as the study of how we should live, how people should live together and what is the overall objective of our life.

In the Western analytic discipline there are three components:

  • Normative ethics, creating theories around what it means to live an ethical live, Ex. consequentialism and human rights
  • Disciplines around the application of the normative theories, this is where technology comes in. let’s say justice is a key component of how we should live, how do we apply our theory of justice to technology?
  • Meta ethics, which is whether or not we can even do this discipline at all, Ex. whether or not we can find moral truth or whether or not people are capable of ethics

“Ethics is the study of how we should live”

For companies, the first two disciplines are the most relevant and applicable. So, if we look at those two areas, one creating the theory of how we should live: for example saying that we want to live a life that is just, we might value peace, we might value freedom, beauty… the normative tries to understand what those big words mean. And then the second discipline takes care of how to apply those theories. By doing so, you have to think about organizational transformation, how technology systems are designed to meet and promote different ideas. Ideas like individuality, for instance.

Think of a social media system, usually they are built to promote individuality, having the individual at the center rather than the community. Each account is attributed to one person, the relevant data is that of the user’s interaction with the platform and less about the links created when different people interact as a group. The platform builds an individualistic outlook on how people are and how they interact with each other. As opposed to understanding me and you, while being together with the space around us, defining who we are when we are together. Social media makes it look that we behave the same way with everybody, making us look like we are constant. But we aren’t. We are different around different people. This is an example of technology pushing us to doing something that might not be accurate. It doesn’t reflect how we actually live or want to live.

“Technology doesn’t reflect how we actually live or want to live”

So if ethics defines the way we want to live and technology influences it, then tech people and tech companies have a higher impact on society, that we think we have. I must admit, I was quite astonished to see it that clearly. At the same time, I was wondering whether it is a new phenomenon, since I was not aware of this huge responsibility before.

Are ethics a new phenomenon?

Ethics have always been part of businesses and technologies, but the one principle has generally been ‘increase shareholder profit’, not taking into account other values or possible problems around discriminations etc. It has got a mono-dimensional view of the world. Today we realize that what was built in the past does not reflect what everyone believes how life should be. In fact, not everyone believes corporations or tech solutions should operate for shareholder profit. Of course, every corporation building technology will say that we they creating valuable products to improve peoples’ lives, be it a washing machine, an online payment system or a mobile phone. The interesting aspect is that if you spoke to an average CEO, they will talk about purpose and say that the point of what they are doing is not only attached to shareholder value. But they are still measured on shareholder value, focused on profit. There are no other measurements based on human wellbeing, or other values like justice, peace, freedom etc.

“CEOs are still measured on shareholder value. There are no other measurements based on human wellbeing”


So why is it that digital ethics or tech ethics are mainstream now?

In some ways it’s not more mainstream now. We have been talking about ethics of tobacco companies, of energy companies and of financial companies for years. Now we are talking about tech companies. So, we have been talking about ethics for a while. It seems to be more relevant now, probably because technology is now affecting the white middle class. This is potentially why it is getting more into the mainstream. Now the bourgeoisie is affected. People close to the people in power (their children, wives etc.) are starting to push back and try to make a difference.

The emotional pressure of people near to you is more effective that the facts and figures.

“Technology is now affecting the white middle class. This is potentially why ethics is getting more into the mainstream.”

How to start your ethical journey?

The starting point of an ethical journey is actually much easier than many companies think.

Alice’s advice is to follow four steps:

  1. Recruit: find people in the company that are interested in making change in ethics and build up a group or community. This step can be done by any employee, regardless of their position, be it in leadership or not
  2. Educate: make sure that you educate the people in this community. Start with a reading club, for example. Pick up some books about digital ethics (Ex. Cathy O’Neil Weapons of math destruction or Privacy is power by Carissa Veliz or Race after technology by Ruha Benjamin) and talk about where you can apply their ideas in your organization. Then you can start bringing in experts to run different programs or workshops to educate people about ethics. The aim is to get cultural buy-in for change
  3. Audit: assess where your company is at, when it comes to ethical aspects and see where to start implementing the changes. Let’s say your company says it is committed to justice, to what extend is this reflected into your operations, processes and your culture?
  4. Implement: depending on the audit start implementing the measures and keep improving, educating again, auditing again and improving again

“4 steps to starting your ethical journey: recruit, educate, audit and implement”

Whilst implementing these four steps, you have to be patient!

Cultural change does not happen quickly. You should not underestimate how long it will take. Good change takes time. Celebrate the small wins so you avoid burn out.

So, there it is: your ticket to an ethical corporation is much closer than you think. Believe in your people and empower them to start the change!

“Good change takes time”