Michael Sandel has spent many summers speaking from the Amphitheater stage, and in all that time he’s never just come just to deliver a lecture. He comes to Chautauqua to have a conversation, and this year is no exception.
“The Chautauqua community is really very special,” Sandel said. “It’s one of the most morally, as well as intellectually, engaged communities that I’ve been privileged to speak to over the years.”
Sandel, a Harvard political philosopher and best-selling author, will be leading Chautauquans in a Socratic discussion on “Digital Responsibility in the Tech World” at 10:45 a.m. EDT Friday, July 24, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. His talk will finish off Chautauqua Institution’s Week Four, “The Ethics of Tech: Scientific, Corporate and Personal Responsibility.”
He will be speaking live, and will engage with a group of around 20 of pre-selected volunteers throughout his talk. Participants were randomly chosen from a pool of Chautauquans who responded to a call through the Institution’s e-newsletters and social media.
“A subgroup of the audience will be live participants in what I expect will be a lively dialogue about the ethical dilemmas posed by new technologies,” Sandel said. “The theme of the session, in line with the theme of the week, will be: How can we think our way through the hard ethical dilemmas raised by new technologies?”
He urges Chautauquans to be critical of the promises of new tech developments.
“New digital technologies promise to make life more efficient, convenient; some even promise modes of decision making more objective and more ‘rational’ than human decision-makers can make,” Sandel said. “But I think we need to question these assumptions and ask whether there are some important human and civic values that we must be careful to protect.”
The illusion of privacy on the internet, particularly in the wave of scandals like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica breach, is a major point of conversation regarding ethics in technology.
“A great many people like the ability to use Facebook or Instagram to keep in touch with their friends,” he said. “But in the last couple of years we’ve become increasingly aware of the downside, even the dark side, of these platforms for sharing information and personal data.”
With so much money to be made selling user data to companies for advertising purposes, companies like Facebook have been resistant to any attempts at regulation.
In the European Union, legislation like the General Data Protection Regulation asserts when, where and how companies can collect personal data from users. There is currently no such legislation in the United States.
Another illusion that needs deconstructing is the idea that algorithms are inherently objective.
“Decisions of who should get parole, or what neighborhoods should be the target of policing, these are areas where we’ve come to rely more and more on algorithms,” Sandel said. “While (they) may seem objective, going dispassionately on data and making predictions based on data, too often the data built into the algorithms reflect patterns of inequality and of discrimination that raise questions about just how fair (they) can be.”
In 2017, Amazon infamously disbanded a resume-screening AI project after it observed patterns in the resumes submitted to the company and started discriminating against female applicants.
Sandel said that while it’s easy to view the increasing power of tech companies and the increasing dependence on new technologies as inevitable, history says otherwise.
“We should not accept the idea that the direction of technology is entirely outside our control,” he said. “We can think back historically to the rise of big powerful corporations around the turn of the century, and it seemed then that the rise of big trusts and monopolies … (were) inevitable.”
However, the rise of the antitrust movement from 1900 to 1920 brought in new regulations that broke up monopolies like John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.
“Perhaps we are now going through a similar time,” Sandel said, “when we need to summon up public awareness and public determination to deliberate together as democratic citizens about how to bend technology to human purposes.”
While Friday’s talk won’t solve any of these problems in itself, Sandel believes it’s a step in the right direction.
“Our discussion will be, I hope, at least one example of the kind of public debate we need as citizens if we are to direct technology to human and democratic ends,” he said.
This program is made possible by “The Lincoln Ethics Series” funded by the David and Joan Lincoln Family Fund for Applied Ethics, The Sondra R. & R. Quintus Anderson Lectureship, “The Chautauqua Lecture” and the Malcolm Anderson Lecture Fund.