The study of technological ethics can be divided into two distinct parts: the ethics of applied technology and the study of technology and society. Over the past twenty-five years, the vast majority of writing on technology has involved the former: ethical reflections on new possibilities from the latest technology. For example, now that a computer can do X, what are the ethical implications of X? Self-driving cars, general-application robots, medical robotics, smartphones, smart bombs, drones, social media, disinformation, and personal artificial-intelligence applications (Siri, Alexa, etc.) fall into this category.
The latter category, studies of society and technology, covers a host of issues related to the production, development, and implementation of new technologies. This field includes topics such as disparities in digital access; the ecological effects of data mining; diversity, equity, and inclusion among employees at tech companies; and racial, gender, and other biases built into technology (for example, Google understands men’s voices better and facial-recognition technology sees white faces better).
Many excellent studies have already appeared in this second category, such as Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology, Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression, Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women, the Netflix documentary Coded Bias, and Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction. These studies are largely aimed at a lay audience on the theory that public awareness—and public actions—may be the only effective way to change common practices of the tech giants. Coded Bias is a great example of this work, chronicling Joy Buolamwini’s journey from discovering racial bias in facial recognition as a researcher at MIT Media Lab to testifying in a congressional hearing with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence joins this group of essential research for anyone interested in ethical problems in the development and implementation of new technology. But the book stands out in its privileging of the physical over the technological. It is more a book about people, places, and things than about ones and zeros, intended to make us struggle with the assumption that there are technological solutions to all of life’s problems. Refreshingly, Crawford is no Luddite. She does not ask us to delete our Facebook accounts or stop using Google, as she understands the vast power imbalances between the tech giants and the individual. The book, instead, is a magnifying glass on abuses and possible abuses, a lens that changes the focus from the latest Tesla or iPhone and toward the hands that carved the earth for the nickel and the now-empty lithium mines that are just as nonrenewable as coal.