DiDIY and ethics

(Vincent C. Müller, 2015)

[Check out the Central page on ethics of Digital DIY!]

DiDIY will have significant ethically relevant impact (that will occur) and it poses significant threats (that might occur). Impacts and threats directly affect the well-being of humans and society, but DiDIY also indirectly has an impact on (and perhaps constitutes a threat to) the ethical norms that currently exist in European societies. So overall, we are looking at a matrix with two rows and two columns: impacts and threats, each of which are direct and indirect. This matrix re-occurs in all the main areas we have identified as major focus (organisation and work, education and research, society at large, legal systems), which is why ethics is structured as a transversal task here, rather than as a separate ‘work package’.

The study of these impacts and threats is new. It can rely on the studies that exist on the larger framework in which we operate, the changes to the ‘information society’, the impact of digital technology had and has information-based industries (print, music, etc.), and social science work on the DIY movement – but the impact that DiDIY will have and the threats it might have, and the fears it generates, are currently not understood. We think this is a fairly large research gap where this project will have to lay the groundwork. Ignoring these impacts and threats would lead to very significant societal disruption and human suffering.

  Impacts Threats

As far as direct impacts are concerned, the ability to reproduce physical objects precisely generates a number of societal challenges and ethical problems. Many of these problems are known from the ability to reproduce information precisely (music/sound, text, images, video): It becomes far more difficult to control distribution and use. The traditional intellectual property rights (esp. copyright) or rights to privacy and informational self-determination might still hold, but in practice they are massively undermined to an extent where they have ceased to exist in some areas. The ability to digitally reproduce objects will face all these problems e.g. objects subject to intellectual property rights (patents, design rights, etc), works of art, unique artefacts, etc. 3D bio-printing of organs raises whole new issues of ‘consumer’ safety and property rights. The direct impacts are that as a result of these developments some traditional industries and jobs will be undermined or disappear. The 3D printer itself may not bought, but printed by a ‘parent’ printer (RepRap Project). Electronic devices are not replaced or taken to the repair shop, but fixed in a ‘repair café’. The weather can now be predicted by amateur groups (wunderground.com). Some of these industries are starting to react: the leading CAD software company Autodesk has acquired the DIY site instructables.com in 2011. The extreme case of digital reproduction would be the ability to reproduce anything at all on the nanoscale and below, with atomic precision, which would mean ‘radical abundance’ but also radical dissolution. The major direct threat is that it will be much harder to control distribution and use of objects that are now legally restrained, e.g. weapons, poisons, hazardous materials, currency, synthetic biology (e.g., viruses). These threats are very real and have already started to become actual impacts, e.g. with 3D printed weapons and counterfeit money. They will acquire massive relevance with synthetic biology: If Greg Venter’s and George Church’s synthetic biology kit becomes reality, I can design a new flu virus strain on a computer, make it at home (DIY) and perhaps kill millions of people.

The ethical challenges generated by digital technologies are the subject of significant research but we need to expand this research to the area of DiDIY where challenges will be more severe: the technology has all the issues of traditional digital technology, plus a whole new set of very real societal threats. We propose to investigate in particular the changes it brings to organisation and work, education and research and the impact it has on society at large and legal systems. In each of these areas, we will detail the ethical challenges this techno-social change generates. As far as the 2nd row in the matrix of indirect impacts and threats are concerned, we see a technological and social development that will challenge traditional controls by questioning their ethical value. At the same time, just like in traditional DIY, the participants challenge the traditional institutions and norms that establish control and replace them with reliance on individual initiative and Commons based peer production (Wikipedia, Drupal, Arduino).

Societies continuously negotiate what is ethical, what is “the right thing to do”, for individuals, groups and institutions; these negotiations are dependent on changes in the societies, and influence such changes, in turn. One important driver of such changes are the technologies available because new technologies not only influence societies massively (changing socio-economic basics, jobs, social strata, gender roles, mobility, etc.) but also generate new challenges when old agreements fail because assumptions made are undermined by a technology. This has happened to who is the “mother” (with extrauterine fertilisation and loan-mothers), when to wage “war” (with nuclear bombs), who “listens” (with ubiquitous surveillance), etc. The growing techno-social development of DiDIY will have a significant impact on extant ethical
norms. Again, the analogy to digital reproduction of information is useful: while traditional norms like copyright and privacy rights still hold, they are not only practically undermined, but also on the retreat in society. For many of the younger generation (the ‘digital natives’) the motto is just that “Information should be free” and the old norms are on the way out. Mark Zuckerberg (CEO, Facebook) said in 2010 that if he were to create Facebook then, all information would be public by default, which the NYT summarised as “The age of privacy is over” (10.1.2010). Some of this impact is a threat to values that some of us might want to uphold, for example the value of respecting a creator and intellectual property rights.

- The matters of ethics are investigated by Alexandre Erler and Vincent C. Müller at AC. Some of our thoughts are on the DiDIY blog (e.g. 'the end of gun control'). -