Edward Snowden and the virtues of courage, magnanimity, justice and civility

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we would need to cultivate in order to flourish as people (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

From: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/2803762/images/o-EDWARD-SNOWDEN-facebook.jpg

Edward Snowden is an American computer professional, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, and former contractor for the United States government. In 2013 he copied and leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA). He revealed numerous surveillance programs of the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance with the cooperation of telecom operators and European governments.

“A subject of controversy, Snowden has been variously called a hero, a whistleblower, a dissident, a traitor, and a patriot. His disclosures have fueled debates over mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security and information privacy.”

Despite the controversy, I believe that Snowden embodies the technomoral virtues of courage and magnanimity.

In a TED Talk (above), Snowden reflects: “I want to make it very clear that I did not do this to be safe. I did this to do what is right. And I am not going to stop my work in the public interest, just to benefit myself”. He saw the dangers of mass surveillance and acted bravely, for the common good, and paid a high personal price–he had to flee the US and has been living in exile since. This concurs with Vallor’s definition of the technomoral virtue of courage: “a reliable disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (p. 131).

Furthermore, Snowden exemplifies moral ambition and leadership; he acted from the conviction that mass surveillance needs to be checked and balanced with other values, such as privacy and transparency. This resonates with Vallor’s definition of magnanimity as a technomoral virtue that “enables and encourages moral ambition and moral leadership, two things sorely lacking in our contemporary technomoral milieu.”

Moreover, Snowden promotes the virtues of justice and civility.

In the same TED Talk (above) Snowden states: “We don’t have to give up our privacy to have good government. We don’t have to give up our library to have security”. He promotes finding better balances between security and privacy in the work of agencies like the NSA. This is in line with Vallor’s definition of the technomoral virtue of justice: a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (p. 128).

Finally, when asked to reflect on his role, in the same TED Talk (above), Snowden replies that he sees himself primarily as a citizen–a citizen concerned with values like privacy and transparency. This is in line with Vallor’s definition of civility: “a sincere disposition to live well with one’s fellow citizens of a globally networked information society: to collectively and wisely deliberate about matters of local, national, and global policy and political action” (2016, p. 141).


Possibly, you find that Edward Snowden Aimee van embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

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Aimee van Wynsberghe and the virtues of care, self-control and justice

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we would need to cultivate in order to flourish as people (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor Aimee) van Wynsberghe

From: https://www.itweb.co.za/content/KWEBb7yalR17mRjO

Aimee van Wynsberghe has been working in ICT and robotics since 2004. She began her career as part of a research team investigating the network variables related to surgical robots. She works as Assistant Professor in Ethics and Technology at Delft University of Technology. She is co-founder president of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics. The Foundation’s mission “is to shape a future of responsible robotics design, development, use, regulation, and implementation”.

She was recently (June 2018) appointed as one of 52 experts for the European Commission’s High Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence.

Aimee van Wynsberghe promotes the technomoral virtues of care, self-control and justice.

Van Wynsberghe promotes the virtue of care–which Vallor defines asa skillful, attentive, responsible, and emotionally responsive disposition to personally meet the needs of those with whom we share our technosocial environment” (2016, p. 138)–on multiple levels: on the application level, she focuses on the deployment of robots in health care contexts; on the design level, she advocates carefully considering ethical issues in the designing of robots; and on the level of (meta) ethics, she proposes ethics of care, an approach in ethics that starts with relationships and interdependencies between people.

Furthermore, Van Wynsberghe promotes the virtue of self-control–which Vallor defines asan exemplary ability … to choose, and ideally to desire for their own sakes, those goods and experiences that most contribute to contemporary and future human flourishing” (2016, p. 124)–e.g. in her work in the Foundation, where she argues that: “Robots are tools with no moral intelligence, which means it’s up to us – the humans behind the robots – to be accountable for the ethical developments that necessarily come with technological innovation.” So we, designers and developers, need to cultivate self-control.

Moreover, Van Wynsberghe promotes the virtue of justice, which Vallor defines as a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128)–e.g., when she argues that: “Addressing ethical issues in robotics means proactively taking stock of the impact these innovations will have on societal values like safety, security, privacy, and well-being, rather than trying to contain the effects of robots after their introduction into society.” She advocates proactively upholding and defending values that are needed in a just society.


Possibly, you find that Aimee van Wynsberghe embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

Luciano Floridi and the virtues of honesty, perspective, flexibility and justice

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we would need to cultivate in order to flourish as people (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor Luciano Floridi

From: https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/people/luciano-floridi/

Luciano Floridi is currently Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab, at the University of Oxford, Oxford Internet Institute, and holds several other academic positions. He was originally educated as a historian of philosophy; he then became interested in analytic philosophy (MA) and in epistemology and philosophy of logic (MPhil and PhD). He contributed greatly to the Philosophy of Information (and Technology), and Information (and Computer and Digital) Ethics, e.g., in his recent books: “Philosophy of Information” (2011), “The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics” (editor) (2010), “Information: A Very Short Introduction” (2010), “The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality” (2014), and “The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Information” (2016).

Moreover, Floridi has been deeply engaged with initiatives on the socio-ethical value and implications of digital technologies and their applications; nationally (e.g., in the UK, with the House of Lords, the Cabinet Office, and the Information Commissioner’s Office),  internationally (e.g., member of the EU’s Ethics Advisory Group on Ethical Dimensions of Data Protection), and with corporations (e.g., member of Google Advisory Board on “the right to be forgotten”). He is one of the members of the recently established High Level Group of Artificial Intelligence.

The Onlife Manifesto

In the context of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research program, he was editor of the “Onlife Manifesto: Being Human in a Hyperconnected Era“. The authors of this Manifesto argue that “ICTs are not mere tools but rather environmental forces that are increasingly affecting: 1. our self-conception (who we are); 2. our mutual interactions (how we socialise); and 3. our conception of reality (our metaphysics); and 4. our interactions with reality (our agency).” Moreover, they argue that this impact of ICTs is “due to at least four major transformations: a. the blurring of the distinction between reality and virtuality; b. the blurring of the distinction between human, machine and nature; c. the reversal from information scarcity to information abundance; and d. the shift from the primacy of stand-alone things, properties, and binary relations, to the primacy of interactions, processes and networks.”

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor floridi why ai is both logically possible and utterly implausible

From: https://aeon.co/essays/true-ai-is-both-logically-possible-and-utterly-implausible 

Floridi also contributed to the debate on Artificial Intelligence. In response to alarmist messages by Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, Floridi wrote that “True AI is not logically impossible, but it is utterly implausible” (Should we be afraid of AI?). Instead of being overly optimistic/utopian or overly pessimist/dystopian, he proposes to be realistic about AI and use it for the greater good and benefits of society: “We should make AI environment-friendly [and] human-friendly […] We should make AI’s predictive power work for freedom and autonomy […] And finally, we should make AI make us more human.”

In his search for scientific rigour and his efforts to generate an overall vision on the role of ICTs, Floridi embodies the technomoral virtue of honesty and perspective, which Vallor defines as, respectively, “an exemplary respect for truth, along with the practical expertise to express that respect appropriately in technomoral contexts(2016, p. 122), and a reliable disposition to attent to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (2016, p. 149). 

In his engagement with society and collaborations with policy makers and corporatons, Floridi embodies the technomoral virtues of flexibility and justice, which Vallor defines as, respectively, a “reliable and skillful disposition to modulate action, belief, and feeling as called for by novel, unpredictable, frustrating, or unstable technosocial conditions” (2016, p. 145), and a characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128).


Possibly, you find that Luciano Floridi embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

 

Sherry Turkle and the virtues of empathy, courage, civility and care

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we would need to cultivate in order to flourish as people (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

Sherry Turkle headshotFrom: https://sherryturkle.com/

“Sherry Turkle has spent the last 30 years exploring the relationship between people and technology. It’s complex. It’s ever-changing. And it affects everything – how we work and learn, how we parent and govern, and even how we love.”

Sherry Turkle obtained a BA in Social Studies and a Ph.D. in Sociology and Personality Psychology at Harvard University, and joined MIT in 1976, where she works as a Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology. For over 30 years, she has studied people’s relationships to computers. She wrote a series of best-selling books: “The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit” (1984), about how computers affect the ways in which we look at ourselves and the way we think and act, “Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet” (1995), about how people can go into virtual worlds, interact with others, and explore multiple identities, and “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” (2011), about how our obsession with devices and connectivity corrodes natural, organic, genuine communication.

In her most recent book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” (2015), she offers a diagnosis of the problem: our obsession with devices and being always ‘on’ and connected made us forget the benefits of solitude (we’re so afraid for boredom that we fill every minute of free time staring at devices), we forgot how to connect to others (we’ve lost basic skills for making conversations, we’re avoiding ‘awkward’ conversations and thus have lost basic skills for empathy), and we forgot how to organize conversations in groups (most people are staring at their screens, in schools, in work places, etc.). In addition, she gives some practical ‘self help’ advice: to make an effort, to put your phone away, to learn to be alone, to learn to connect to others, and to learn how to foster genuine conversations. The key problem, i.e. a lack of conversations, can be solved be solved by exactly that what’s lacking, by having better conversations.

The chairs on the book’s cover are a visual reference to a quote by Henry David Thoreau: “I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society“.

Turkle has conducted ethnographic studies with thousands of people over more than 30 years, and over the course of those years, these conversations have made her concerned. In the 1980’s computers were exciting; we could use them as tools to explore our identities. But now, in the 2010’s our tools are controlling us. These interactions moved her to want to ameliorate this situation. She is simultaneously worried, about the lack of conversation, and hopeful, about the potential of better conversations as a solution.

In her work, Turkle embodies the technomoral virtues of empathy, which Vallor defines as a “cultivated openness to being morally moved to caring action by the emotions of other members of our technosocial world” (2016, p. 133), and of courage: “a reliable disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (2016, p. 131).

Moreover, through her work, she advocates cultivating the technomoral virtues of civility, which Vallor defines as “a sincere disposition … to collectively and wisely deliberate about matters of local, national, and global policy and political action; to communicate, entertain, and defend our distinct conceptions of the good life; and to work cooperatively toward those goods of technosocial life that we seek and expect to share with others” (2016, p. 141), and of care, which Vallor defines as “a skillful, attentive, responsible, and emotionally responsive disposition to personally meet the needs of those with whom we share our technosocial environment” (2016, p. 138). With her analysis and advice, she urges us to reclaim conversation, to cultivate the skills of conversation, for the sake of civility and humanity, as an act of care to our fellow humans. 


Possibly, you find that Sherry Turkle embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

Yuval Noah Harari and the virtues of perspective, humility and empathy

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we would need to cultivate in order to flourish as people (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

From: https://www.bookspot.nl/auteurs/yuval-noah-harari

Yuval Noah Harari embodies the virtues of perspective, humility and empathy.

Harari is a historian and a storyteller. He is known for his bestseller books Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

In Sapiens, he tells the story of how humans created subjective reality: things that objectively do not exist, but which come into being because groups of people believe in them. This allowed humans to build pyramids and empires, and invent money and the rule of law.

In Homo Deus he tells the story of how we are merging infotech and biotech: integrating computers in our bodies and delegating human tasks to computers. We are, unintentionally and unconsciously, ushering in the age of data. It is unclear what role will be left for us, people.

In passing, he debunks humanistic handholds like the soul (sorry, doesn’t exist; we’re animals, just like other animals), free will (sorry, doesn’t exist; it’s either determined or random) and consciousness (sorry, not really special; probably some by-product of thinking).

He zooms-out, to paint broad brushstrokes, spanning thousands of years, and he zooms-in, on details in daily lives and experiences. His putting of things, both large and small, into one story exemplifies the technomoral virtue of perspective, whichShannon Vallor defines as “a reliable disposition to attent to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (2016, p. 149).

Some find Harari’s books as dystopian. Everything is only a social construct. There’s no soul, no free will, nothing special about consciousness, and Artificial Intelligence is on a collision course with us, humans. I don’t share this interpretation. I read and hear humility and empathy in his books and talks.

Harari exemplifies the virtue of humility, which Vallor defines as “a recognition of the real limits of our technosocial knowledge and ability” (2016, p. 126), in that he debunks humanity’s illusions of superiority and mastery.

Harari exemplifies empathy, which Vallor defines as a “cultivated openness to being morally moved to caring action by the emotions of other members of our technosocial world” (2016, p. 133), in his urge to treat our fellow animals less cruel.

This follows from his debunking of humanity’s superiority. He sees no good reasons to torture and kill cows, pigs and chicken, fellow animals with feelings and intelligence not similar to ours. Unsurprisingly, Harari’s diet is vegan. In addition, he uses our treatment of animals as a cautionary tale for how cruelly some future so-called superior life form may, one day, treat us …

Finally, it’s worth noting two more things about Harari’s personal life, which he explicitly relates to his professional work.

He is a committed practitioner of Vipassana meditation. He explains that this helps him to quiet the deluge of random thoughts and daydreams, and to focus on reality. Professionally, this has helped him to focus on what really matters, on the big picture–extremely handy when you write about Big History.

And Harari is gay. He explains that his experience of being gay has helped him to distinguish between man-made phantasies, like “homosexuality is evil”, and natural phenomena, like “many fellow animals behave homosexually”. And, obviously and logically, to dismiss the former and embrace the latter.


Possibly, you find that Yuval Noah Harari embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

Cathy O’Neil and the virtues of honesty, justice, humility and courage

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we would need to cultivate in order to flourish as people (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

cathy-oneil-125-1000px

From: https://mathbabe.org/contact/

Cathy O’Neil embodies the virtues of honesty and justice, and of humility and courage. 

Cathy O’Neil earned a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, was a postdoc at MIT, and a professor at Barnard College […] She then switched over to the private sector, working as a quant for the hedge fund D.E. Shaw in the middle of the credit crisis […]. She left finance in 2011 and started working as a data scientist in the New York start-up scene […]. She wrote “Doing Data Science” in 2013 and launched the Lede Program in Data Journalism at Columbia in 2014. She wrote the book “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy“, and recently founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company.

WeaponsMath r4-6-06.jpg

In this book, she provides a broad range of examples of the harms that algorithms can do–intentionally or unintentionally. Very often, poor people suffer the hardest: “Promising efficiency and fairness, [these algorithms] distort higher education, drive up debt, spur mass incarceration, pummel the poor at nearly every juncture, and undermine democracy” (p. 199). She coined the term Weapons of Math Destruction, to refer to algorithms with the following characteristics: their outcomes have large effects on people’s lives and society; they work invisible and are inaccessible for scrutiny or critique; their usage tends to spread like wildfire, e.g., affecting an entire industry; and they lack proper feedback loops and checks, so that they can all too easily derail.

Existing unfairness and injustice–which, in the US, often concur with discrimination based on race, resulting in poverty and lack of opportunities–are propagated through algorithms: “Big Data codify the past.” (p. 204) […] She argues that “we need to impose human values on these systems, even at the cost of efficiency” (p. 207).

  • Her TED Talk: “The era of blind faith in big data must end

O’Neil embodies the virtues of honesty and justice. She unveils the lies surrounding algorithms and their unwarranted promises, in order to critique the injustice and unfairness they propagate and exacerbate. For her, honesty, about what math can do, and cannot do, and advocating and striving for justice go hand in hand.

Shannon Vallor defines the technomoral virtue of honesty as “respect for truth, along with the practical expertise to express that respect appropriately” (2016, p. 122), and justice as a “reliable disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of … technologies” and a “characteristic concern for how … technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128).

In addition, O’Neil embodies the virtues of humility and courage. Humility because she knows very well what math can do, and cannot do. She critiques many widespread practices: using invalid proxies, e.g., using people’s financial credit scores to assess risks related to driving a car and setting a price for car insurance; the lack of feedback loops, which are critical for putting a faulty algorithm, e.g., one that effectively creates random outputs, back on track; and focusing on those variables that can be quantified and data which are easily available, instead of deciding that algorithms make no sense, e.g., because the desired results are qualitative or hard to put into numbers. Moreover, she embodies courage in that she experiences both fear and hope in intelligent ways: she understands the dangers of algorithms, and she has hope that we can “disarm (p. 199) and “dismantle” (p. 202) these Weapons of Math Destruction.

Shannon Vallor defines the technomoral virtue of humility asa recognition of the real limits of our technosocial knowledge and ability” (2016, p. 126), and courage as a “disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies” (2016, p. 131).


Possibly, you find that Cathy O’Neill embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

Jaron Lanier and the virtues of perspective, justice and flexibility

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we would need to cultivate in order to flourish as people (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

jaronlanier

From: http://www.jaronlanier.com/

Jaron Lanier embodies the technomoral virtues of perspective, justice and flexibility.

Lanier is a computer scientist, author and musician. He pioneered Virtual Reality; in the early 1980s he founded VPL Research, the first company to sell VR products, and in the late 1980s he led the team that developed the first multi-person virtual worlds, using head mounted displaysand “avatars”. He believes that VR can help people to experience their own consciousness and to meet and empathize with others. He “is known for charting a humanistic approach to technology appreciation and criticism“; he wrote award-winning and best-selling books like: You Are Not A Gadget (2010), Who Owns the Future? (2012), Dawn of the New Everything (2017), and Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018)As a musician, Lanier has been active in the world of new “classical” music since the late seventies. He is a specialist in unusual musical instruments, especially the wind and string instruments of Asia. He is also active as a visual artist.

Lanier is a visionary and in that sense he embodies the technomoral virtue of perspective–a virtue which Vallor defines as: “a reliable disposition to attent to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (2016, p. 149). He has a holistic and humanistic vision that encompasses and critically connects tiny things, like a seemingly small detail in a user interface design, which supports or stifles a specific behavior, e.g., a civil conversation or toxic mob behavior, and huge things, like capitalism and its grip on tech companies’ business models, and their drive to grab people’s attention and steer their behavior, and in the process (probably unintentionally) corrode the social fabric of society.

Furthermore, Lanier embodies the technomoral virtue of justice, which Vallor defines as a “reliable disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of emerging technologies” and a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128).

Lanier worries about the inequalities that the Internet propagates and exacerbates. He explains that several beliefs and decisions made early on in the development of the Internet currently hound us is: the belief that “information want to be free” and the decision in favor of a capitalist model. This has resulted in free services, like Google and Facebook, which see people as data points that can be surveilled and manipulated. As a result, a very small number of people is getting very rich from the business of disrupting society. Lanier also points out that this evil outcome does not need any evil intentions. It’s the by-product of a series of choices.

lanier2

From: http://www.jaronlanier.com

Moreover, Lanier embodies the technomoral virtue of flexibility, which Vallor defines as “a reliable and skillful disposition to modulate action, belief, and feeling as called for by novel, unpredictable, frustrating, or unstable technosocial conditions” (2016, p. 145). Lanier’s biography, with his movements between action and reflection, and between knowledge domains, demonstrates his flexibility.

As a result of his flexibility, it’s not easy to put Lanier into neat categories. One could, e.g., also argue that he embodies virtues like civility (his disposition to want to foster dialogue and decency in cases of disagreement), courage (his disposition to express dissent in a milieu of which he’s part himself), and humility (his disposition to view technology as a tool, and to focus on ways in which it can promote human flourishing).


Possibly, you find that Jaron Lanier embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl