Sabelo Mhlambi is a computer scientist, researcher and Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. He focuses on the ethical implications of technology in the developing world, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, and has written a great, concise essay on technological ethics in relation to the global north and south.

Ethics is not missing in technology, rather we are witnessing the ethics in technology – the ethics of the powerful. The ethics of individualism.

Mhlambi makes a number of important points, and I want to share three of them. First, he says that ethics is the result of human will, not algorithmic processes:

Ethics should not be left to algorithmic definitions and processes, ultimately ethics is a result of the human will. Technology won’t save us. The abdication of social and environmental responsibility by creators of technology should not be allowed to become the norm.

Second, technology is a driver of change in society, and, because technology is not neutral, we have individualism baked into the tools we use:

Ethics describes one’s relationship and responsibilities to others and the environment. Ethics is the protocol for human interaction, with each other and with the world. Different ethical systems may be described through this scale: Individualistic systems promote one’s self assertion through the limitation of one’s relationship and responsibilities to others and the environment. In contrast, a more communal ethics asserts the self through the encouragement of one’s relationship and responsibilities to the community and the environment.

This is, he says, a form of colonialism:

Technology designed and deployed beyond its ethical borders poses a threat to social stability in different regions with different ethical systems, norms and values. The imposition of a society’s beliefs on another is colonial. This relationship can be observed even amongst members of the South as the more economically developed nations extend their technology and influence into less developed nations, the East to Africa relationship being an example.

Third, over and above the individualism and colonialism, the technologies we use are unrepresentative because they do not take into account the lived experiences and view of marginalised groups:

In the development and funding of technology, marginalized groups are underrepresented. Their values and views are unaccounted for. In the software industry marginalized groups make a minority of the labor force and leadership roles. The digital divide continues to increase when technology is only accessible through the languages of the well developed nations. 

It’s an important essay, and one that I’ll no doubt be returning to in the weeks and months to come.