The Ethics of Invention Technology and the Human Future

by Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology

The Ethics of Invention Technology and the Human Future We live in a world increasingly governed by technology but at what cost

Publisher :

Author : Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies John F Kennedy School of Government Sheila Jasanoff, Sheila Jasanoff

ISBN : 9780393078992

Year : 2016

Language: en

File Size : 6.86 MB

Category : Engineering Transportation


General Editor: Kwame Anthony Appiah

Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World byJohn Broome
Universal Rights Down to Earth by Richard Ford
Just Freedom: A Moral Compassfor a Complex World by Philip Pettit
Just Business: Multinational Corporations and Human Rights byJohn Ruggie
Thinking in an Emergency by Elaine Scarry
Can Intervention Work?by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus
The Human Right to Health byJonathan Wolff

Martha Minow


Science and Public Reason
Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States
Science at the Bar: Law, Science, and Technology in America
The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers
Risk Management and Political Culture:
A Comparative Study efScience �n the Policy Context
Controlling Chemicals: The Politics efRegulation in Europe and the United
States (with Ronald Brickman and Thomas Ilgen)
Dreamscapes efModernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries
and the Fabrication efPower (with Sang-Hyun Kim)
Reframing Rights: Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age
States efKnowledge: The Co-Production ifScience and Social Order
Earthly Politics: Local and Global in Environmental Governance
(with Marybeth Long Martello)

Comparative Science and Technology Policy
Learning.from Disaster: Risk Management after Bhopal

and the
Human Future

Sheila Jasanoff

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publi�ation Data
Names: Jasanoff, Sheila, author.
Title: The ethics of invention : technology and the human future /
Description: First edition. I New York :W.W. Norton & Company, [2016] I
Series: The Norton global ethics series I Includes bibliographical
references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016014456 I ISBN 9780393078992 (hardcover)
Subjects: LCSH: Inventions-Moral and ethical aspects. I Technology-Moral
and ethical aspects.
Classification: LCC Tl4 J34 2016 I DDC 174/.96-dc23 LC record available at
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For Nina


Chapter 1
The Power of Technology 1
Chapter 2
Risk and Responsibility 31
Chapter 3
The Ethical Anatomy of Djsasters 59
Chapter 4
Remaking Nature 87
Chapter 5
Tinkering with Humans 116
Chapter 6
Information's Wild Frontiers 147
Chapter 7
Whose Knowledge, Whose Property? 177



Chapter 8
Reclaiming the Future


Chapter 9
Invention for the People 246
Acknowledgments 269
Notes 271
Index 287


Chapter 1



ur inventions change the - world, and the reinvented
world changes us. Human life on Earth today looks
radically different from just a century ago, thanks in
good part to technologies invented in the intervening years.
Once firmly earthbound, with only legs and wheels to carry
us on land and ships to cross the waters, we have now taken to
flight in droves, with more than eight million passengers criss­
crossing continents each day in a few airborne hours. If Rich­
ard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, achieves his dream
of building the world's first commercial "spaceline," ordinary
people may soon become astronauts. Communication, too, has
broken free from shackles of time and distance. When I left
India in the mid-1950s, it took three weeks for letters to go
back and forth from Kolkata, where I was born, to Scarsdale,
New York, where my family first settled. Mail would not arrive
reliably. Stamps would be stolen and packages not delivered.
Today, an electronic message sent at night from· the eastern
United States brings an in�tant reply from a friend in Europe
or Asia whose day is just beginning. Facebook connects more
than a billion users worldwide with a single mouse click or
two. 1 Last but not least, we have cracked the secrets of living


The Ethics of Invention

and nonliving matter with the decoding of the human genome
and the ability to create and deploy a world of novel human­
made materials.
Speed, connectivity, and convenience matter a lot, but for
most of Earth's seven billion people the quality of life matters
more. Here, too, a century of accelerating technological inven­
tion has changed us. Work is safer. Air and water in many parts
of the world are measurably cleaner. We live appreciably longer.
The World Health Organization (WHO) tells us that global
"average life expectancy at birth in 1955 was just 48 years; in
1995 it was 65 years; in 2025 it will reach 73 years." 2 Tech­
nological innovations account for the trend; better sanitation,
drinkable water, vaccines, antibiotics, and more abundant and
wholesome food. People not only live longer but enjoy their lives
more, through increased access to travel, recreation, varieties
of food, and, above all, improvements in health care. If asked
whether we would rather be living in 1916 or in 2016, few today
would opt for a hundred years ago, even if the world back then
had not been racked by war.
Adding up to what some call a second industrial revolution,
the technological advances of the past century have propelled
wealthy nations to the status of knowledge societies. We have,
or are poised to have, unprecedented amounts of information
about people's genetic makeup, social habits, and purchasing
behavior, and those data are expected to enable new forms of
commerce and collective action. State census bureaus are no
longer the only bodies that can compile masses of data. Search
engines like Google and Yahoo have also become voracious
data gatherers, rivaling governments. Even individuals can use
devices like Fitbit or the Apple watch to monitor and record
volumes of information about their daily activities. Digital tech­
nologies have made it possible to combine previously incom-

The Power of Technology


mensurable forms of data, creating useful convergences between
physical, biological, and digital records. What we know about
a person today is no longer just a matter of physical descriptors,
such as height, weight, ethnicity, and hair color. Nor can people
be located through only a few static markers, such as an address
and a phone number. Instead, biometric information has pro­
liferated. Passports, for example, can be linked to information
gleaned from fingerprints and iris scans collected from anyone
who crosses a national border. Apple incorporated a digital
fingerprint sensor into its smartphones in the 2010s to replace
numerical passcodes and to offer greater security.
The information explosion, spurred by exponential growth
in computing capability, now powers economic and social devel­
opment. The Internet has put unprecedented informational
resources at people's fingertips and functions in this respect as
an aid to democracy on many levels: for patients wishing to
research new drugs and therapies, for small business owners
attempting to reach stable markets, or for citizens seeking to
pool knowledge about local problems and pressure the authori­
ties to act. Almost everything that people do in high-tech societ­
ies leaves informational traces, and these can be consolidated to
form astonishingly accurate pictures of their demographic pro­
files and even their unexpressed desires. From medical environ­
ments to commercial ones, the concept of "big data" has begun
to expand people's imaginations about what they can learn and
how information can open up new markets or provide better
public services. In this era, as many governments now recog­
nize, knowledge itself has become an increasingly precious com­
modity, needing to be mined, stored, and developed like any
rare natural resource. The big data age is a frontier for business
opportunities, and youthful tech entrepreneurs are the iconic
figures driving the new gold rush.


The Ethics of Invention

Today's information and communication technologies offer
remarkable scope for anyone who can creatively tap into the
newly abundant sources of data. Airbnb and Uber took advan­
tage of unused capacity in private homes and private vehicles
to turn willing property owners into hoteliers and taxi drivers.
When this sharing economy works, everyone benefits because
unused capacity is put to use and unmet needs are met more
efficiently at lower cost. Families that could not afford to pay
for hotels can enjoy dream vacations together without break­
ing the bank. Enterprises like Uber and Zipcar can help lower
the number of cars on the ;road, thereby reducing fossil fuel
use and greenhouse gas emissions. Many of these developments
have opened up new frontiers of hope, even in economically
depressed regions of the world. Indeed, technology and opti­
mism fit together like hand in glove because both play upon
open and unwritten futures, promising release from present ills.
Technological civilization, however, is not just a bed of roses.
Offsetting invention's alluring promises are three hard and
thorny problems that will frame the remainder of this book.
The first is risk, of potentially catastrophic dimensions. If human
beings today face existential risks-threats that could annihilate
intelligent life on Earth3 -then these are due to the very same
innovations that have made our lives more easy, enjoyable, and
productive. Our appetite for fossil fuels, in particular, has cre­
ated a warming planet where massively disruptive changes in
weather patterns, food supplies, and population movements loom
uncomfortably close. The threat of total nuclear war has receded
a little since the fall of the Iron Curtain, but devastating local­
ized nuclear conflicts remain well within the zone of possibility.
Highly successful efforts to manage infectious diseases have pro­
duced unruly strains of antimicrobial-resistant organisms that
could multiply and cause pandemics. Britain's first "mad cow"

The Power of Technology


crisis of the 1980s offered a sobering preview of the unexpected
ways in which poorly regulated agricultural practices can interact
with animal and human biology to spread disease.4 While health
and environmental risks dominate our imagination, innovation
also disrupts old ways of working and doing business, creating
economic risks for those left behind. Taxi companies' bitter oppo­
sition to Uber, especially in Europe, reflects an anxiety recently
expressed to me on a late-night cab ride in Boston: that the taxi
driver is an endangered species.
The second persistent problem is inequality. The benefits of
technology remain unevenly distributed, and invention may
even widen some of the gaps. Take life expectancy for example.
According to the 2013 United Nations World Mortality Report,
average life expectancy at birth in rich countries was over sev­
enty-seven years, but in the least-developed countries it was
only sixty years, or seventeen years less.5 Infant mortality rates
dropped dramatically between 1990 and 2015, but by WHO
estimates rates in Africa remained almost five times higher than
those in Europe. 6 Patterns of resource use show similar discrep­
ancies. World Population Balance, a nongovernmental organi­
zation dedicated to eliminating poverty, reports that the average
American consumed seventeen times as much energy as the
average Indian in 2015. 7 In the age of the Internet and instant
communication, the U.S. Census Bureau documents wide vari­
ation in broadband access within the United States, with 80 per­
cent having such a connection in Massachusetts versus less than
60 percent in Mississippi.8 The same technologies can be found
from Kansas to Kabul, but people experience them differently
depending on where they live, how much they earn, how well
they are educated, and what they do for a living.
The third problem concerns the meaning and value of nature
and, more specifically, human nature. Technological invention


The Ethics of Invention

upsets continuity. It changes who we are as well as how we live
with other lives on Earth, and on this front, too, change is not
always felt as beneficial. For more than a century, writers ranging
from the German sociologist Max Weber to the American envi­
ronmentalist Bill McKibben have bemoaned our loss of capacity
to wonder at a denatured world, mechanized and disenchanted
by technology and threatened by the unstoppable march of pro­
gress. The frontiers of disenchantment have widened. Endless
new discoveries, especially in the life sciences and technologies,
tempt humanity to play out scripts of self.fashioning and control
that could transform nature and human nature into manipulable
machines. Today's deep ecologists, committed to defending
the intrinsic value of nature, want to turn the clock back
on some of our most pervasive inventions, such as cars and
chemicals. England's Dark Mountain Project, founded and led
by the eco-activist Paul Kingsnorth, mobilized around a night­
mare of "ecocide," of industrial humanity "destroying much
of life on Earth in order to feed its ever-advancing appetites." 9
This collective of writers and creative artists is committed to
promoting "uncivilization," through art and literature that
might redirect humanity toward less destructive ends.
A more immediate result of technological advancement,
other critics claim, is fragmentation and loss of community,
in short, the weakening of the social ties that make human
lives meaningful. The Harvard political scientist Robert Put­
nam deplores the America of "bowling alone." 10 This is an
America where, in his view, people stay home watching tele­
vision instead of getting involved in church or civic activities,
an America in which women eager for equality and financial
independence have left mothering, school teaching, and other
community-centered occupations for higher-paid jobs in law
offices and corporate boardrooms. Such claims may seem

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