Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein was the U.N. high commissioner for human rights from 2014 to 2018. He is the Perry World House distinguished global leader-in-residence at the University of Pennsylvania.
Most of us are aware of the argument that every technological advance that ought to serve the public good, and often does, can also be used malevolently. Tim Cook of Apple made this his theme — the need to blend technology with values — when he delivered the 2017 commencement speech at MIT.
At the core of the issue is the belief that tech is value-neutral. When first developed, a new technology is neither infused with ethics nor bereft of them; it requires guidance. If augmented by ethical considerations, the hope is this invention will serve the public good and be profitable; if not, the outcome could be ambiguous at best, and devastating at worst. So we are going to focus more on ethics — that is what an assortment of leaders from the tech industry tell us will solve the problem. But these chief executives are mistaken, because ethics alone — whether incorporated into a vision statement or drilled into a product line — can never overcome the power of global and societal context.
In 1903, the Wright brothers created the first powered flying machine — one of the most amazing technological miracles ever performed by humans. In its early years, flight was utterly whimsical. Almost as soon as the wheels left the ground, competitions were announced, with prizes awarded to pilots who broke speed and distance records. But then World War I intervened, and the playfulness evaporated. In many countries, civilian aircraft production was converted into weapons manufacture, including the production of the first bombers. Only after the Treaty of Versailles did civil aviation bounce back — so successfully, in fact, that passenger travel soon became possible for the glitterati across much of the globe.
But the Nazi invasion of Poland and the bloodbath that followed struck this revival down with ax-like brutality, putting aircraft production back under the control of war ministries. Massive bombing campaigns against civilians in cities culminated in the dropping of atomic weapons in 1945. These uses of aerial power were not morally equivalent, but they highlight a fundamental point — and it’s not about ethics.
It is this: When the global order is improving — when there is peace and prosperity, liberal democracies are expanding, repression is withering away and human rights are being honored — chances are technology will generally be put to good use. If the situation is the opposite — when liberal democracies are failing, repression spreads, human rights are violated and nations are engulfed by war — technology will become a partner of bad intentions.
So Google or Apple can roll out their principles or establish their ethics boards, and Verizon can try to block scamming robocalls; but such piecemeal measures, devoid of an overall coordinated strategy, will have limited impact. Indeed, so long as societies, and the global order, are being broadly reshaped by more sinister forces, the measures could be meaningless.
I am reminded of Niels Bohr, who visited Los Alamos in December 1943 and urged fellow physicists working on the Manhattan Project to think beyond physics and consider the project’s implications to humanity — and of his fears, as he wrote in 1944 to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that despite its temporary advantage, the atomic bomb would be “a perpetual menace to human security.” But, by then, it was too late for either Bohr or for J. Robert Oppenheimer, who agreed with Bohr’s concern, to guide its development strategically — the context of World War II, and later the Cold War, determined the trajectory of nuclear physics.
Context is, therefore, king.
If we do not fix our breaking world — and that must be our priority — technology will likely only hasten the demise of the human race. The context cannot be solved by technology alone; governments must take action. But most existing governments are equally incapable of sorting this out. The possibility of salvation, therefore, lies in a few progressive governments joining the tech industry in the effort to slow down, and ultimately reverse, a decomposing international order. This will be possible only if we anchor the exertion not simply in abstract ethics but also in respect for existing international human rights law and fundamental freedoms — and that is the key point. To think otherwise is to rub against the grain of historical experience.