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date: 21 August 2017

Digital Media Ethics

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.

Over the past decade or so, Digital Media Ethics (DME) has emerged as a relatively stable subdomain of applied ethics: it addresses the ethical issues evoked by computing technologies and digital media more broadly—cameras, mobile and smart phones, GPS navigation systems, biometric health monitoring devices, and, eventually, “the Internet of Things,” as these have developed and diffused into more or less every corner of our lives in the (so-called) developed countries. DME is radically demotic: in contrast with specialist domains such as Information and Computing Ethics, DME takes up the ethical challenges and issues evoked for “for the rest of us,” all of us who make use of one or more digital devices in our everyday lives. DME takes up both ancient ethical philosophies, such as virtue ethics, and modern frameworks of utilitarianism and deontology as well as existentialism and feminist ethics. The global distribution and interconnection of these devices means, finally, that DME must take on board often profound differences between basic ethical norms, practices, and related assumptions as these shift from culture to culture. What counts as “privacy” or “pornography,” to begin with, varies widely—as do the more fundamental assumptions regarding the nature of the person whom we take up as a moral agent and patient, rights-holder, and so on. Of first importance here is how far we emphasize the more individual vis-à-vis the more relational dimensions of selfhood—with the further complication that these emphases appear to be changing locally and globally.

Nonetheless, DME can now map out clear approaches to early concerns with privacy, copyright, and pornography that help establish a relatively stable and accepted set of ethical responses and practices. By comparison, violent content (e.g., in games) and violent behavior (cyber-bullying, hate speech) are less well resolved. Nonetheless, as with the somewhat more recent issues of friendship online and citizen journalism, an emerging body of literature and analysis point to at least initial guidelines and resolutions that may become relatively stable. Such resolutions must be pluralistic—that is, allowing for diverse application and interpretations in different cultural settings, so as to preserve and foster cultural identity and difference.

Of course, still more recent issues and challenges are in the earliest stages of analysis and efforts at forging resolutions. Primary issues include “death line” (including suicide web-sites and online memorial sites, evoking questions of censorship, the right to be forgotten, and so on); “big data” issues such as pre-emptive policing and “ethical hacking” as counter-responses; and autonomous vehicles and robots, ranging from Lethal Autonomous Weapons to carebots and sexbots. Clearly, not every ethical issue will be quickly or easily resolved. But the emergence of relatively stable and widespread resolutions to the early challenges of privacy, copyright, and pornography, coupled with developing analyses and emerging resolutions vis-à-vis more recent topics, can ground cautious optimism that, in the long run, DME will be able to take up the ethical challenges of digital media in ways reasonably accessible and applicable for the rest of us.