Cyberethics: Back to the Future by Dr. Jane Robinett, San Diego State University
Computers have reshaped our world and our lives in ways we have not anticipated. They have redefined not only the way in which work is done in offices, schools and manufacturing complexes, but also the nature of work itself. They have shown us that political boundaries are indefensible against invasions of ideas. The steady transborder flow of information and images that computer-based telecommunications networks provide, can threaten and alter even the most entrenched political structures. Computer-based medical technologies have redefined the boundaries of life and death. We have been forced to examine our facile assumptions about life as the ultimate good and death as the ultimate ill which can befall us. This has led to the creation of a new domain for ethicists: bioethics. Bioethics, for all its complexities, has a fundamentally familiar feel to it because it deals primarily with physical or instrumental reality. But computers have created another kind of reality one which Umberto Ecco (Travels in Hyperreality) and Jean Baudrillard, among others, have termed hyperreality. Ecco, who published Travels in Hyperreality in 1975, defines it as a reality that combines the real and the artificial. This combination results in more, a world, that is denser, more packed and vivid than reality itself. Chief among his examples is Disneyland, a world built around the latest technologies and using audioanamatronics, a combination of animation, audio, video, holographics, computers, robotics and lasers.
Baudrillard points to hyperreality as simulation which absorbs reality, a sel-referential object, a hyperreal object without a subject.(1) But for the purposes of our discussion, Albert Borgman’s definition of hyperreality are most helpful. Hyperreality is made possible by information processing “to the extent that it overcomes and displaces tangible reality.” (2) Borgman divides hyperreality into two categories: instrumental hyperreality, like the hyperreality of the financial world, an imaginary world constructed by telecommunications technology (phones, fax machines, modems and computers large and small), and final hyperreality, a not-yet fully realized hyperreal world which involves all our senses and creates a simulated world in which we can live. Although it is an artificial reality, hyperreality can and does replace physical reality because of three characteristics: it is “brilliant”, that is, it includes all physical senses and excludes unwanted information or noise (the sense of machinery operating somewhere in the background), it is rich (dense, allowing for all possibilities), and it is pliable, that is, it can be manipulated in any way we want. It is also attractive because it frees us from the unpredictability and intractability of physical reality and human beings. Hyperreality extends beyond novelty into a kind of parallel world made possible by computers, an electronic reality. It is this new kind of reality which behooves us to re-formulate both traditional ethical theory and traditional definitions of reality. We might call this re-formulation “cyberethics.”
The word “cyber” comes from the Greek [kybernetes] for helmsman, the person who controlled and directed the course of the ship. It was Norbert Wiener who first coined the word “cybernetics.” From this word comes “cyborg,” an acronym for “cybernetic organism,” those artificially created human-like beings which populate our science fiction and foreshadow other kinds of life. In 1985, the fiction of William Gibson first posited a new form of “cyber”: cyberspace, a form of electronic reality generated by the minds of those who use it in what he calls a “consensual hallucination.” Although Gibson’s cyberspace is, at this point, non-existent, instrumental forms of electronic or electro-mechanical hyperreality already exist, and forms of final hyperreality, including Virtual Reality, are now being pioneered by Jaron Lanier and others. What we need to navigate these uncharted waters of this new reality is a new understanding of ethics to steer by.
Ethics deals with the problem of determining what constitutes the correct behavior toward other human beings. It is based on values, some of which are fundamental to all cultures [the value of life and the acceptance of death, honest/truth-telling, fairness/rightness] and others which are culturally determined. Ethics is something which we all take part in. In dealing with people, we always have to choose between alternate courses of action. We base these choices, implicitly or explicitly, on values. In the light of such values, we develop more detailed concepts of what constitutes right and proper conduct toward others. Of course, this does not mean that we all have exactly the same ideas about what right and proper conduct is, nor does it mean that we work from the basis of a formal ethical system. But, in trying to live responsibly, we cannot escape attempting to articulate and apply our values — that is, we cannot escape being ethical.
Typically, in a traditionally-defined community, ethical principles underlie our public and private behavior toward each other, and in general, we act in accordance with these principles. We respect the lives of others, their privacy and property, and their right to self-determination. We observe rules of public order and courtesy based on these principles. We learn forms of ethical behavior from the time we are young. We are taught both overtly and by the constant examples we see around us, by what we read, hear and watch. This ethical behavior is reflected in the order of the communities we live in. Of course, there are always people who actively disregard ethical behavior. The results of this appear daily in the headlines, but it is news because it deviates so sharply from the norm. The surprising thing is not that people commit murder and mayhem, but that so many of us arrive home in the evening without having done grievous bodily harm to at least one of the people we have encountered during the course of the day.
Because we have so much practice, it is usually easy for us to determine what the correct action is when we are dealing with another person, even if we don’t do it. But it becomes increasingly difficult for us to behave ethically when the other person is not physically present, or when we have no sense of another physical person, when such a person is only present representationally in a data construct or a holographic representation. When we enter the hyperreal worlds which computers make possible, it becomes difficult to see that ethical behavior is even called since no physical or material forms of life are present.
By contrast to traditional notions of ethics, cyberethics should designate the correct form of behavior toward human beings, as the boundaries of their lives are redefined for us by information technology. Each of us, although we are rarely aware of it, exists not only as a physical person, but also as a collection of information located in various data bases. That informational representation of our selves does much to determine our lives. Because we now have this kind of dual existence, ethics must deal not only with actual physical people in a material reality, but also with their extended representations — that is, with the models or constructs of those lives which computers create and make widely available (the virtual person as opposed to the physical person). Cyberethics should also extend the boundaries of ethical behavior to encompass other kinds of lives and resources as they are included in an augmented understanding of what is essential to life, both human and non-human life.
Perhaps the clearest illustration of why and where cyberethics are needed, lies in computer networks. In order to begin, we need to understand how networks are constituted, not in terms of hardware and software, but in terms of the people who are linked together through them. A system built around networks and used to a greater or lesser degree by several thousand (or several hundred thousand) people is not at all unusual. The people who use any on-line system, regardless of its size, constitute a community, that is, they constitute a group of human beings who live or work in close hyperreal proximity to each other, and who share common resources of computing power, storage space, communication lines, programs, hardware, and processing time to achieve their various purposes. The people in this community take part in the same kinds of activities we find in any human community. They work at particular projects, trade information, gossip, argue, joke, play games, ask for (and get) help, strike up new friendships, get angry and shout (called flaming in English) and even commit acts of abuse and violence. In short, a network community, although its physical structure is entirely distinct from a traditional community, is identical in its fundamental aspects to any neighborhood.
But a network community is, to a large extent, invisible as such. It has no single physical location, no visible boundaries, no city limits. Unlike other human communities, it does not consist of the buildings, streets and parks of a physical town which tell us that we are in a place where other humans live, a place where ethical behavior is called for. It has no material existence, and hence, no material reality. It is a community of the mind. Its territory is all virtual territory, existing electronically within the system. It is not visible unless the user is logged on, and even then, the full scope of it is never visible to a single individual. Each user has only a single window from which to view this vast virtual country. But, no matter how large or complex, this community still consists of human beings, each of whom has an electronic home/office (an account) on the system. All of these users must share network resources to achieve their various purposes, and all of them are entitled to the same respect in terms of privacy, property, and self-determination, among other things, as they are in the physical communities of which they are a part.
Networks transcend our physical, social, cultural and national boundaries. When we use them, as we do more and more frequently, we are no longer citizens only of the physical place and time that we inhabit, but of a much larger human community whose territory is composed of virtual space, that is, not of physical expanses (towns, cities, farms, fields and mountains) but a hyperreality equivalent in important ways to physical/material space. Although it is not space in (physical) fact, it is very much space in effect. In this community, unlike other kinds of human communities which are constituted around the physical presence of their members, cannot teach or enforce a code of ethics by example. We have always depended heavily on the presence of others to remind us that we need to behave ethically. In a community of the mind where the nature of reality is significantly altered, it is difficult for people to understand that ethical behavior is required or to learn what constitutes ethical behavior because they feel themselves to be alone. But logging onto a multi-user system means walking into a community of other people. Learning what constitutes right and proper behavior in that hyperreal community is difficult unless these ideas are deliberately articulated, disseminated, and discussed. Many universities and research facilities that use networks have, in recent years, drawn up codes of ethics for members of this community, but many users never bother to read them.
Network communities are not the only example of the new kind of reality with which cyberethics must deal. Data models (information constructs) of the person also exist in this hyperreality. Those information constructs are routinely bought and sold in great volume. Many people regard these kinds of files as ethically inert. When the person is represented only by a few lines in a database or by a series of linked files, it might seem that there is no need to even consider ethical behavior. Should those files be erased, edited, altered, copied or damaged, there is no sense of causing harm, because there is no sense of damage to either physical persons or material property. The hyperreality in which those files exist appears to be clearly separate from physical reality. However, any alteration to that hyperreal model of the individual can have very damaging effects in the physical reality which the person inhabits, effects no less damaging and far more enduring, than a punch in the eye. Although computer files exist in hyper, not physical, reality, they affect and intrude on material reality.
The whole concept of virtual entities (virtual memory, virtual machines, virtual space, virtual communities, virtual persons, virtual reality) constitutes a good example of a new concept that computers have made possible for us. These forms of hyperreality are both real in effect and intangible in fact — virtual memory behaves like memory in your computer, but it is a space created or designated by the computer and not an physical array of memory chips. Among them is the most completely realized form of hyperreality that currently exists: virtual reality. Virtual reality is an entirely computer-generated physical environment which we enter via a virtual reality helmet and goggles and a set of gloves. Within this hyperreal world, we can move around, open doors, walk through rooms, poke around in cupboards, maneuver objects, play handball, perform surgery, or manipulate genes, just as if we were operating in a physical reality. It is an entirely new kind of reality, no less real than physical reality in effect but different in nature than physical reality. Just as it took entirely new tools to create, it will need entirely new definitions of reality before we can begin to think about how human beings should behave in such an environment.
The idea of a reality with no tangible physical existence is entirely new territory for us. Traditional theories of reality (ontologies), as Albert Borgman points out are “powerless to explicate the difference between the real and hyperreal….” (Crossing the Post Modern Divide, 95) In the same way, present perceptions of ethics do not encompass human behavior in this kind of reality. Traditional ethics defines our areas of ethical responsibility too narrowly to be helpful in dealing with the kind of reality which these systems present us with.
The hyperreality which virtual reality systems combined with holographics and audioanimtronics make possible, although it may appear identical to physical reality, is nevertheless disconnected from it. When we enter hyperreality we are cut off from physical contexts, even when the illusion of the physical is perfect. Hyperrealities are disposable; we can dispense with them when we wish, an impossibility with physical realities. When we leave, we find ourselves within the context of the physical world.
The job of cyberethics, then, is threefold: first, it must redefine the concept of reality to include the present and future hyperrealities which electronic, holographic and audioanimatronic systems create. Second, it must redefine ethics to include what lies beyond old bounds of the physical person and the physical community. We can no longer afford an concept of ethics which applies only to our behavior toward the physical person. The same respect and care accorded to the physical person of human beings must be extended to include the information constructs that, in one way or another, define and support their lives and well-being, information that exists in another kind of reality. Cyberethics must begin to map out guidelines for both the ethical uses of and ethical conduct in hyperrealities. It should help us consider not only our behavior to the members of the generations of which we are a part, but of those yet to come who will be faced with hyperrealities far more extensive and powerful than those we now have. Finally, it must, like the far older ethical understanding of societies we have been pleased to call primitive, look to correct and proper behavior toward other kinds of lives, large and small, human and non-human, physical and virtual, and toward the resources which support and sustain not only human lives, but the life of the planet.
In order to go forward into a future increasingly mediated by technology, particularly computer technology (a world of biochips, complex hyperspace realities, intelligent machines, and augmented humans), cyberethics must also look ahead to delineate the correct and proper behavior toward the machines and systems which will support and sustain both human and non-human lives, and may in turn, come to be a form of life themselves.
1. See Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations, New York: Semiotext(e), 1983, for a full discussion of his position.
2. Albert Borgman, Crossing the Postmodern Divide, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 82.