Oh, the humanity!

Consider the cost of technology.

It’s not just an issue of dollars and cents. Part of its price is paid by workers whose jobs cease to exist. Part of the cost comes through changes in attitudes towards privacy, when peoples’ lives are violated in the name of security, or when they’re electronically

harassed by marketers with no sense of propriety. And all citizens pay the price in other ways, as public policy struggles to catch up with reality.

Human Rights in an Information Age, by Dr. Gregory J. Walters, looks deeply into these issues. They may not appear to be technological on their own, but technology has drastically altered the landscape in which they play out.

The book’s subtitle is “”a philosophical analysis””, which should serve as a warning that this is not your basic lemonade-and-hammock summer reading. Walters is a theologian and a professor of ethics at Saint Paul University in Ottawa who has devoted six years to the production of the book, and almost fifteen years to mulling over the ideas behind it.

Walters says he was motivated to write the book because as technology moved to the forefront in society he was running into a host of ethical issues that seemed quite new. “”I purposely wanted to try something that was not locked into a myopic view, especially on issues of privacy,”” he said. “”Privacy is an institution in Canada.””

As human beings, he added, “”We have to try to understand the stakes of what we’re going through. We need to have as much public discussion as possible. …. (The book) is a sympathetic reading of the Canadian Information Highway policy.””

It is, however, a lot more than that. In eight chapters, Walters talks about inequality and the restriction of property rights in the global economy, noting that “”globalization has undermined traditional employee protections and rights in the workplace and contributed to new structural forms of unemployment.””

He also explores the history and evolution of Canada’s Information Highway policy, and discusses its effect on citizens, particularly the disadvantaged and vulnerable. Walters poses questions such as: Do people who can’t afford access to information technology have the right to expect that public access will be provided? If so, who pays for it? Walters suggests it should be the state, because “”participation and interaction in community networks represent an ideal that is not dependent solely on market forces, and thereby mirrors the idea of a community of rights as a solidaristic system dedicated to working for the equal economic and social rights of all individuals living within a given community.”” (Whew!)

In other words, access to these networks should be a social justice issue, not one of dollars and cents.

Did I mention that this is a philosophical analysis? And, as you may have noticed, it’s not a particularly easy read. The material came from scholarly papers, previously presented to fellow ethicists who would have understood the references to authors that most of us have never heard of. Walters’ research, however, is not limited to the obscure; it runs the gamut from government documents through philosophical tomes to mainstream publications like the Financial Post. The bibliography stretches over thirty-four pages.

Human implications are always at the forefront of Walters’ arguments. His background as a professor of ethics echoes in every sentence. When he talks about information warfare, the human right to peace is front and centre. Privacy is discussed in the context of both ethical justification and social value. Poverty is described in terms of not only lack of resources, but as the denial of choices and opportunities.

One of the sub-theses of the book, Walters says, is that technology can be a wonderful tool in education, social and political democracy, but it’s still just a tool. “”Technological tools are good precisely to the extent that their end-users are good human beings.”” (I take issue with that statement; it’s a poor choice of words — a “”good”” human being can nonetheless wreak total havoc with technology through simple incompetence or misguided action.)

“”Evil doesn’t appear as a serial killer,”” he says. “”It’s a paradox — all of the world’s greatest evils are always masked in human values.””

This is not a volume you can read at a sitting; it’s too densely written. It collects issues around the information economy that have been building over the years and discusses them in detail. You may find fault with some of the arguments; you may find some of them totally unrealistic (philosophy is idealistic by nature), or you may nod your head in agreement. But if you make the effort to work through the book, you’ll come away with food for thought and a new appreciation of the human impact of our information economy.

Human Rights in an Information Age, Gregory J. Walters, University of Toronto Press, pub. 2001.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

Lynn Greiner is a Computing Canada editor-at-large.

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