Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Is Any Technology Ethically Neutral? The Sony Reader

A recent New York Times article announced the debut of the Sony Reader, an electronic book that uses tiny plastic spheres to simulate the appearance of an actual page of print. Unlike a laptop display with its energy-hogging backlighting, the Reader uses only existing room light and consumes essentially no power until you turn the page. A reader of the Reader can take satisfaction in the notion that no trees were cut down and hardly any oil or coal burned to produce the miniscule amount of energy needed to operate it.
A more environmentally friendly technology can hardly be imagined, it seems. So should we all pitch our old-fashioned stacks of paper bound together and buy Readers? It depends.

When I try to engage certain people in a discussion of the ethics of a given technology, an argument I often hear goes like this: "Well, technology by itself is neutral. It's only the ways people use technology that are good or bad." That is one of those nice-sounding phrases that look good at first, but tend to disintegrate under scrutiny. The Sony Reader would seem to be a good candidate to exemplify the idea of the neutrality of technology. No one is making us go out and buy Readers. It's simply another item on the market which may or may not prove popular. It seems to be environmentally benign, and as long as it does what its maker claims for it, what downsides could it possibly have?

That question actually sends us out upon deep philosophical waters. There is a school of thought popular in Europe that goes under the name of the "precautionary principle." Followers of this principle take the stand that any new technology must be examined thoroughly for possible harmful effects before it can be generally distributed. If no actual harm has occurred yet, the examination of a technology for possible harm necessarily involves reasoned speculation about what might occur. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with basing technical decisions upon hypotheticals. After all, the Sony Reader's designers were speculating that people would want to buy their product if they developed it, and so the use of speculation in evaluating its effects, both good and bad, is no less warranted.

For example, one could imagine Readers sweeping the world to become as popular as books, if not more so. (To a great extent, this has already taken place as computers have replaced reference volumes in libraries.) Would the world be a better place if every book was an e-book?

That depends. The people who make conventional books wouldn't think so. Technological unemployment has been around ever since there was technology. Somehow the world's economies have absorbed the paste-up artists, the platemakers, the hot-type linotypers, and all the other superseded occupations that pre-electronic forms of printing required. What has happened to a good fraction of the printing industry's past workers might eventually happen to all of them. But unless you believe in state control and ownership of the means of production, technological unemployment is just one of those things that happen.

How could this possibility be forestalled? In the world's continuing embrace of a free-market global economy, consumers can exert a certain amount of control over what they buy. But consumers can't buy what isn't there, and much of the power to decide what gets sold lies with those who control the large firms whose investments determine the directions of the markets. If next year, most investors decide that paper books are going the way of the slide rule when electronic calculators came along, the rest of us will not be able to do much about it.

Next, consider what the Reader is made of: probably some conventional electronics, a battery, and a display containing thousands if not millions of tiny plastic spheres suspended in some kind of liquid. Some day—probably sooner than later if the useful lifetime of the typical laptop is any guide—the brand-new Readers now waiting on store shelves will accumulate in attics and closets, only to be thrown out when the next model comes along. As we have learned, you can't simply throw things away these days, because there isn't any "away" anymore. More and more environmentally conscious manufacturers are doing what is called life-cycle design, which takes into account the problem of how to dispose of a used piece of equipment with minimal impact to the environment. I have no specific information on the Sony Reader in this regard, but at the least, its disposal will take up some room in a landfill somewhere. And if it contains any hazardous chemicals in its battery or display, these chemicals could cause problems later.

Finally, there is the subtle but real change in the habits of millions who change from one form of information exchange to another. No matter how closely the makers of a new technology try to imitate the experience produced by a previous one, some things are different. And sometimes the new technology imposes a whole set of new habits on the user, not all of them good ones. How many of us have rattled out an angry email and hit the send key only to regret it later? Somehow, the act of writing or typing a paper letter, signing it, folding it, addressing it, and putting it in the mailbox provided a number of additional points of decision where we could give heed to our second thoughts and at least put the letter aside instead of mailing it. What at first looked like nothing more than obstacles to the rapid communication of thought now looks more like a kind of psychological buffer that may have made society a better place.

I have no idea whether the Reader will catch on, or whether it is only a precursor of something better, or whether, like the poor, the paper books we will always have with us. And my little exercise in applying the precautionary principle to such a benign-looking piece of technology as the Reader should not be misunderstood to mean that I feel it is a threat to civilization. But I hope I have made clear that any technology whatsoever that ends up in the hands of people has intrinsic potential for both good and bad consequences, and the way it is designed can influence how those consequences develop over time.

Sources: The New York Times article by David Pogue on Oct. 12, 2006 describing the Sony Reader was located at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/12/technology/12pogue.html.

1 comment:

  1. I dunno; it seems to me that one reason discussions like that don't happen often in the public sphere is that they can easily drive you nuts just trying to explore the entire problem space.

    To take one trivial example, what are the ethical implications of NOT moving to ebooks-- some portion of forests will not be depleted to make books and possibly some magazines. But then, those forests may become overgrown, and cause more and larger forest fires, thus perchance killing people, and do you really want to be responsible for killing dozens, possibly hundreds of firefighters by allowing people to sell Sony readers?

    It's fun to play with in an abstract sense, but I'm not sure how you can deal sensibly with possibilities like that unless you've a lot more information about the world than most of us have at any given point in time.