Roland Dürre
Saturday February 7th, 2009

Ethics and Informatics

This is one of the articles I had planned to publish in the Informatik-Spektrum and sent the editor as my first sample “Die Gesellschaft für Informatik, GI, das Informatik-Spektrum und die Ethik

Critical spirits warned against computers early on. According to them, computers were the realization of Orwell’s vision. Did history prove the self-appointed augurs to have been correct?

Bertrand Russel (1872 – 1970) was a British philosopher, mathematician and logician. During the 60ies and 70ies, many of us idolized him. Let me start by citing him:

All increase in technology means an increase in wisdom, provided it is supposed to be coupled with an increase of human happiness!

Beautifully spoken. It would have been still better if technological progress had actually correlated with an increase in wisdom. In my personal opinion, that is not what happened. That is why I would like to write about ethics and informatics more often in the future. Let me start by defining both terms.

Ethics:

It is not necessary to define the word ethics. It is self-evident. Everybody is capable of judging whether he or someone else has been acting ethically or “unethically”. We all know that ethics has both a subjective and an objective component. Both in its application and its quality, there are “different ethics”. In order to behave in a universally ethical manner, you have to define common values. Those might be either part of the UN charter or some commandments of one of the world religions. Maxims like “never inflict on anybody else something you would not wish to suffer yourself” or “promote the blossoming of life in all its dimensions” are examples for values on which behaviour could be based for us all to accept.

Informatics:

The term “informatics” was created by a group of IT pioneers around Prof. F. L. Bauer. It is an acronym for information technology and means all technology that supports the exchange, distribution and processing of all kinds of information and knowledge. It is the science of information technology and information technique. The printing press, radio and TV are part of early informatics, tables, mechanical computing machines and the computing rod are technical forefathers of modern computers.

The Social Relevance of Informatics:

Informatics accelerates and determines our progress in civilization and society. Computers change our world as did the clock, the closed hearth, the steam engine, the Diesel motor, electricity, telephones, the railway and the automobile.
Production and commerce have changed drastically, as did all public and private life. The speedy ascent of enterprises like Amazon, Apple, Dell, Ebay, EMC, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Yahoo was stunning. Utopian visions like free products (free software) never happened. Totally new and collaborative working models have been developed. Projects of almost unbelievable complexity can now be finished successfully.

Now we are moving from the auto-mobile era to the info-mobile era. Our future, especially the development of the social systems we live in, will depend on whether or not the computer scientists will be able to see beyond the ends of their own noses as architects of a new age. This is why I write about ethics and informatics in Informatik-Spektrum (or rather, I was going to write).

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Roland M. Dürre (duerre.de)was born in Augsburg in 1950. He studied mathematics at TUM. Today, he is head of the board of directors and major shareholder of InterFace AG, which he founded in 1984 as InterFace Connection GmbH, in Unterhaching near Munich. He published regularly in Informatik-Spektrum and in IF-BLog.

2 Kommentare zu “Ethics and Informatics”

  1. Chris Wood (Tuesday February 10th, 2009)

    See above “Allen Menschen ist bewusst, dass Ethik eine subjektive wie eine objektive Komponente hat”.
    I do not accept this. My piece “Ethics beyond Humanism” was partly an attempt to find such an objective component. But I did not fully convince myself, and most people seem to disagree. Most ethical ideas are totally subjective, the subjects being humans, or some even smaller group. One might believe that an action leading to the destruction of the universe would be unethical, but I am not really sure about that. We Europeans seem to have very privileged lives just now. It is not hard to believe (as plenty of philosophers have) that the normal situation is misery (especially for other animals).

  2. Chris Wood (Wednesday February 11th, 2009)

    There is a larger group of people who do not divide ethics into subjective and objective components, namely seriously religious people. They believe that ethics are defined by God. So, from a human point of view they are entirely objective, (though perhaps hard to find out). I suppose that, from God’s point of view they may be entirely subjective. But probably God cannot have a point of view, since his “view” encompasses everything.

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