Technology needs Christian ethics
Editor’s note: Paul Taylor is pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California (USA). He has an Industrial Engineering degree from Stanford and is founder of AllThingsNew.tech.
In elementary school, four-square games dominated the playground. We played ferocious matches, struggling to occupy the prime square on the court. We all knew the rules. But sometimes we disagreed over how to apply them.
Did the ball really hit the line? What constituted a bounce or bobble? Who has the authority to make judgments on the court? What gives one third grader more credibility than another? When we couldn’t agree, the teachers stepped in.
A recent New York Times article asks a provocative question: “Who will teach Silicon Valley to be ethical?” The author paints a picture of the Silicon Valley corporate landscape, which resembles an elementary school recess. She begins by asserting, “I think we can all agree that Silicon Valley needs more adult supervision right about now.”
The Bay Area and its tech giants used to be the darlings of the world. Everyone wanted in. Everyone admired the innovation, creativity, and excitement flowing from Silicon Valley. But things have changed.
Recent times have seen a backlash against the tech industry. From complaints about Saudi investment, to data privacy concerns, to general complaints about tech culture, and even suggestions that Silicon Valley has lost its cool factor. The tide has turned.
Ethics has compelled this shift in public opinion. After amassing such incredible power, the tech industry should assume the burden of minding its own manners. Customers should be protected, employees honored, and communities invested in.
But even after recognizing this need for ethics, we still have a fundamental problem. The New York Times article alludes to this gap when quoting an unnamed ethics consultant, “We haven’t even defined ethics, so what even is ethical use, especially for Silicon Valley companies that are babies in this game?”
Who determines ethics?
This is the underlying issue. Silicon Valley doesn’t just lack ethics: it lacks any kind of a coherent framework for determining what those ethics might be.
Guidelines for life, relationships, and interactions don’t come from thin air. They flow from fundamental beliefs about the nature of life, what it means to be human, and how people flourish. Without some agreement on these foundations, how can Silicon Valley hope to agree on ethics, much less implement them?
A friend of mine used to work in one of the technology research labs in the Silicon Valley of the 90’s. As an engineer, he was programming a piece of software processing transactions between businesses. Settings could include or exclude certain information based on the user’s preference.
My friend realized that the defaults he chose would dictate usage for 90% of his customers. Recognizing the privacy issues at stake for transferring information between businesses, he approached his managers for guidance on setting the transaction defaults.
They saw the ethical issues and gave him this instruction: “Do the right thing.”
Their response reflects the problem technology faces in our time. What exactly is the right thing? Whose voice contributes to that conversation?
What would the response have been if my friend had gone to his pastor to ask for biblical wisdom? “What does the Bible say about setting defaults for inter-company transactional data?” he might have asked. A blank stare would have been the only response. Pastors and biblical scholars understand issues about life and theology. They’re not prepared to determine applications for the kinds of specific situations where technologists find themselves.
My friend ended up leaving technology to attend seminary, saying, “I don’t know enough theology to be a good engineer.”
Do the right thing
Who will develop the theology necessary for engineers to be “good;” not merely competent in their jobs or even skilled in the way they interact with their bosses and colleagues? Who will help them become engineers who are ethical and lead companies with integrity?
These are the kinds of ethics Silicon Valley needs to find. But most of the discussions for determining such ethics feature a gaping hole. The NYT article suggests “bringing in the key advisers, supporters and pundits and philosophers and everybody necessary to ask the question if what we are doing today is ethical and humane.“
Advisers. Supporters. Pundits. Philosophers. Where are the pastors? The biblical scholars? The spiritual leaders?
As the world around us struggles to implement ethics, what role can Christians play? What do we say to the CEO of a small startup? How do we help an engineer code Google maps in line with the character of God? How do we advise the creation of artificial intelligence in accordance with our Creator?
The role of Christians
We need a biblical framework describing how technology allows us to exert power over creation. We need a historical perspective that recognizes these issues as familiar but within a new context. We need practical guidance for technologists addressing the unique questions their work creates.
Christians ought to have a seat at the table to help Silicon Valley define ethics. But to prepare for that, they need to have something to say.
This begins with conversation. Pastors, scholars, technologists, and entrepreneurs exploring how God works through technology. As the conversation matures and develops, we can consolidate our ideas into a framework to offer that to the world.
When Christians begin to influence the powerful industry of technology, we will shape culture in positive ways. When faith in Jesus informs the specific questions faced by technologists and engineers, God’s passion for justice, inclusion, purity, family, dependence, communities, and the marginalized can find their expression through technology.
This vision has inspired a group of Bay Area Christians to encourage this needed conversation. At AllThingsNew.tech, we engage with our communities through biblical reflections on technology, articles by technologists, and podcast interviews with technology leaders.
If Silicon Valley needs adult supervision, Christians have an opportunity to step in with mature thought. Join the conversation and explore the powerful ways technology can express the heart of God.
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. (Habakkuk 2:2)
- Join the conversation at AllThingsNew.tech
- Reach out to Paul about how you can play a role in bringing Christian ethics to technology