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Book review: ‘Right/Wrong – How Technology Transforms Our Ethics’

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A thought-provoking examination of how the evolution of technology reshapes our ethical principles.

We all like to think that we know right from wrong, and we’re certainly not afraid to express our own opinions. And although we take a stand on certain issues that we regard as the complete truth, we often forget such ethics have evolved over time. But TED speaker Juan Enriquez argues that one of the biggest drivers of ethical upheaval and change is technology, an advancement in humanity which “provides alternatives that can fundamentally alter our notion of what is right and wrong.”

In fact, in ‘Right/Wrong: How Technology Transforms Our Ethics’ (MIT Press, £20, ISBN 9780262044424), Enriquez provides us with a compelling analysis of why the passage of time, linked to the evolution of innovation and technology, changes our own ethics. This may make us wonder, do we actually know what’s right and wrong?

In one example, Enriquez encourages us to picture going into a time machine. We go back to the time when our great-grandparents were in their twenties, and we have a conversation about sex... Cringey, right? But our great-grandparents would be shocked to hear about what we take for granted today: from birth control to IVF. In their eyes, surrogacy would be seen as some form of witchcraft and they would likely be revolted by the idea of same-sex marriage. We’d be shocked by their reactions to what we see as the norm in our everyday lives, but let’s not forget that the same will happen to us. Our own grandchildren would likely be dismayed by the messiness of pregnancy, childbirth, and unedited genes.

This area is one of many explored in this book. Indeed, Enriquez challenges a series of technology-influenced ethical dilemmas which include climate change, social media, mass incarceration, and profiteering from war. He also delves into technologies such as artificial intelligence and digital contact tracing in the Covid-19 era we are currently enduring. But throughout each section, he constantly reminds us that with technological advancement and time, society’s ethical goalposts keep on shift. One fundamental rule he stresses in this debate is to not assume what is acceptable today is acceptable tomorrow.

What was done and said centuries ago, when seen in the light of today’s standards, seems abysmal. But the same will happen to us in the eyes of future generations. For example, we are a predominantly meat-eating generation, but our grandchildren are likely to take a dim view of how we slaughtered animals for sustenance when they are likely to have more affordable alternatives and perhaps even be the ability to genetically engineer their own foods.

In ‘Right/Wrong’, Enriquez turns what can be perceived as a dull subject into a witty and insightful piece of storytelling, challenging our perception of what we think is right and wrong. He says the purpose of the book is not to answer all these complex questions for us, but rather for us to have a better understanding of the ways in which technology can fundamentally alter what we believe is ethical today, regardless of our current beliefs and what side of the political spectrum we are on.

This book vividly reminds us, with empathy and humility, that ethics evolves and changes over time alongside advancements in technology. While we judge our ancestors for certain decisions and actions that we think are wrong, our descendants will too be judging us, as their technology gets more advanced.

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