Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Information and Computer Ethics: A Brief History

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Information and Computer Ethics: A Brief History

Article excerpt


In 1948, a technical paper called "A Mathematical Theory of Communication" appeared in an obscure scientific journal. Its author was Claude Shannon, a diffident young scientist working in the Bell Labs Mathematical Research Group. Shannon's paper proposed the "bit" as the basic unit for measuring information. In that same year, the transistor was discovered at the same Bell Labs in New Jersey. Although very few people noticed what was happening, the incipient information technology revolution was now underway. The discovery of the transistor was crucial, but the elaboration of a commensurate information theory was equally decisive. Thanks to Shannon, information was soon regarded as the "blood and the fuel, the vital principle of all reality" (Gleick 2011, p. 8). Shannon's information theory served as a bridge between mathematics to electrical engineering and then to digital computing (Gleick 2011).

The issues that pertain to information ethics (such as ownership and access) existed long before the digital era. Nonetheless, the transition from atoms to bits, which made possible information and communications technologies, meant that more attention than ever before would be focused on information use. It also meant that "information ethics" assumed greater urgency, as users and producers of information searched for fundamental rules that would prescribe how information should be responsibly collected, stored, and accessed.

The evolution of information ethics and its merging with computer ethics is an intriguing story that bears some scrutiny for the lessons it can teach us about the nature of information and the task of controlling it fairly. The purpose of this essay is not to trace this history in detail, but to highlight its salient moments and to examine how information ethics took a definitive shape thanks to the discovery of information's digital character. It will also address several controversial topics such as the uniqueness of computer ethics issues, the need for a proper methodology, and this discipline's structural foundations.

The Genesis of Information Ethics

The two phrases "information ethics" (IE) and "computer ethics" (CE) are often used interchangeably but in the past they have had very different connotations. There has never been a complete dichotomy between IE and CE but enough discontinuity to keep them apart for some period. Information ethics as it was first conceived by scholars like Kostrewsi and Oppenheim (1980), Capurro (1988), and Hauptman (1988) represented a broad field of study. The Journal of Information Ethics (founded by Hauptman) has certainly played a key role in promoting this broad sub-discipline of applied ethics, which encompasses all informational areas.

According to Hauptman (2002), IE is fundamentally concerned with the "production, dissemination, storage, retrieval, security, and application of information within an ethical context" (p. 121) This definition adds some welcome precision to IE. In its infancy, IE dealt with generic ethical issues such as proper ownership, preserving confidentiality, information bias, standards of reliability, and distributive justice.

Accurate, unbiased information has intrinsic value but is also necessary for knowledge (defined as justified belief) because it provides sufficient evidence to rationally justify one's assertions. Knowledge, for example, can be based on induction, a form of reasoning that proceeds from particular instances or pieces of information to a general conclusion. Information, therefore, is a critical resource or asset that must be managed effectively and prudently. Without information and knowledge, no person can thrive or achieve self-fulfillment no matter what his cultural background or his basic objectives. As Aquinas (1961) pointed out, "A large part of human misery is error and deception."

According to Floridi (2008), information ethics in its initial stages was driven primarily by this resource-based view of information and knowledge. …

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