Inadvertent Insights of an Ethics Girl

I have just got back from a crowded seminar on ethics and emerging technologies at the European Parliament in Brussels. They crammed six or more speakers into each one-hour session, creating quite a challenge for the chairs (of whom I was one). The chair of the session before me, Mark Wells, in one of those jokes that only the English make on such occasions, introduced me as an Ethics Girl (knowing I have recently moved to East London). What he didn’t know was that I have also just been appointed a professor at the University of Hertfordshire, which might have stretched the Home Counties puns to breaking point (No, I don’t have the heart to go there…). One of the more interesting presentations was from Alma Whitten, of Google. I heard her say that when ethical issues were raised, connected with privacy, free speech or safety, these tended to be raised by very different scapegoaters. Wow, I thought, I realised that these big companies are increasingly on the defensive (thinking of what Google have been up to in China) but that’s a term I haven’t come across before. Which set me sliding off on a riff about corporate paranoia and the seemingly inexhaustible and shameless tendency of those with power to appropriate the language of those they have oppressed so they can present themselves as misunderstood victims. (think of all those poor white men who are convinced that their careers have been ruined by the political correctness that, so they imagine, favours women and people from black and ethnic minority groups, whilst conveniently forgetting that they still earn substantially more). It took me a while to realise that in fact she had been using the conventional jargon that renders power relations invisible and was simply referring to ‘stakeholders’! And I, of course, am getting so old and deaf that I couldn’t hear her properly. I was able to collect myself in time to hear her talk about some VERY scary stuff to do with putting face recognition software on mobile phones.
In case you want to know more about it, the event was organised by the Etica Project see http://moriarty.tech.dmu.ac.uk:8080/ for more information.

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