The Role of IT in the Ethics of Globalization

By Schultz, Robert A. | Issues in Informing Science & Information Technology, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

The Role of IT in the Ethics of Globalization


Schultz, Robert A., Issues in Informing Science & Information Technology


Introduction

Information Technology (IT) has been an enabler of economic and cultural globalization. Indeed, it is likely that without IT, current levels of globalization would be impossible. Thus as an essential enabler of globalization, IT has some ethical responsibility for the implementation of globalization. This paper discusses the nature of IT's responsibility within ethical globalization.

I will first briefly characterize globalization and then outline a social contract theory of ethics which I believe is the most appropriate ethical theory to apply to the problem. (These results build on the results of Schultz, 2009.) Finally, I will suggest the appropriate ethical principles and practices for IT to follow to aid the ethical implementation of globalization.

Figure 1 indicates the general relations of different levels and kinds of ethics that will be discussed in this paper. Note that IT ethics draws from many different levels of ethics.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Globalization

Globalization can be described as the coalescence of the economies and cultures of this planet. The reason for the coalescence is technological advances, both in information technology and transportation technology. It is not as though people all over the world suddenly decided to globalize for no special reason. Globalization so characterized is a recent phenomenon. Without IT, for example, it would just not have been possible to manage parts of a business as a single transnational supply chain. The IT applications which made such supply chains possible did not begin to emerge until the 1970s, and were dramatically enhanced by the arrival of the Internet for business use in 1994. Also, transportation technology improvements such as containerization in the late 1950s and early 1960s made it more feasible to do manufacturing on the other side of the world.

A fuller description of the globalization would discuss political and legal aspects as well as economic and cultural aspects. Each of these aspects of globalization cannot be considered completely in isolation. Economic globalization forces changes in culture, and cultural globalization forces changes in politics and law. Farmers in Mexico who cannot compete with subsidized US agribusinesses are forced to become manufacturing laborers or illegal immigrants to the US. Cultural globalization has made child labor and battering of women less acceptable. As these examples illustrate, globalization has both positive and negative aspects.

For this reason, globalization has become a contested concept. My aim here is neither to condemn globalization nor to praise it. Globalization is a form of human social cooperation with both good and bad aspects. To try to prove that globalization is in itself good or bad would be just as nonsensical as to try to prove that human social cooperation is in itself good or bad. Human social cooperation has produced a technologized lifestyle which is dramatically better for many people. Human social cooperation has also produced great evils such as wars and the potential collapse of the ecosystem. Globalization has also produced benefits and harms. So instead of trying to determine whether globalization is good or bad, I consider how globalization can be implemented in a just and ethical way. My ultimate concern in this paper is to show IT's potential contribution to such an implementation.

IT is much more, I think, than a mere enabler of globalization. Within globalization, IT produces new ethical problems all by itself. For example, around 2002, Yahoo provided the Chinese government with information about two pro-democracy journalists who were subsequently jailed and apparently tortured. The journalists successfully sued Yahoo. Yahoo initially claimed that it was merely complying with Chinese law (Elias 2007). The obvious ethical issue is whether Yahoo should do this, whether the law of a country not recognizing basic human rights should be followed. …

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