The Designer’s Responsibility

Yesterday I wrote about the Supreme Court stifling innovation. I went on and on about the personal responsibility of the individuals who use a product for illegal activities such as running over children with a car or copying music illegally using P2P clients. I’d like to address the other side of the coin now, the responsibility of people who build things.

The Ethics of Creation

We are responsible for the results, foreseen or not, of our actions. We are also responsible to a greater or lesser degree for the results of actions taken by that which we create. Parents are keenly aware of this as they watch their children, a product of the own actions, grow up and take independent, and often foolish, actions of their own. Until a child reaches the age of 18 the parents are responsible for their children and the actions the children take. In a similar vein, inventors can be responsible for the results of creating a new technology. Just ask the men and women who worked on the Manhattan Project in World War II about seeing the effects of their invention.

Technology is generally not good or evil.
Perhaps you can find a rare invention or scientific discovery that can do now harm or no good, but generally speaking there is a balance to be found. Too much or too little medicine can kill. TNT can be great for removing tree stumps but can also remove human limbs. P2P networks can be used for widespread piracy of music and movies but they can also be used to distribute large files through unreliable networks at a low cost. Stem cell research, atomic energy, genetic engineering, and the automobile all require finding a healthy balancing point to deal with them responsibly.

Those who create new technologies should ask themselves if there is a legitimate, ethical use for their product. Perhaps they will find that they want to patent it and prevent it from ever being built and sold simply to protect people from harm. Or they may find that the potential for good outweighs the harm that may be done by individuals using the technology. However, knowing that someone may misuse their invention does not mean make the creator responsible for the actions of another free individual. It does not make them legally liable for the results of the other person’s actions.

I think that the test that the Supreme Court applied in the 1984 Sony Betamax decision was a fair one. If a technology has a legal use then the creator is not liable for illegal use by other individuals. If a product is created expressly to break the law with no other function and is sold to consumers for that sole purpose then the maker may be held liable for the illegal uses of the product. This is a very high standard that discourages frivolous prosecution of the inventors, scientists, and manufacturers who keep our economy vibrant and healthy.

Getting Beyond the Fear

It seems that with every new scientific or technological breakthrough in history someone was shouting about how it would destroy the fabric of society, would piss off God, and would corrupt the children. I’m sure when the wheel was invented someone was screaming “won’t someone think of the children, they’ll be run over by this rolling monstrosity!” Yet we continue to thrive as a species and find new ways to do good in addition to evil (though there is plenty of both in this world).

While healthy skepticism of new technology or ideas is good and normal, the knee jerk reactions we so often see, particularly by politicians and mass media, is appalling. Ignorance and fear are driving people where reason and caution are appropriate. Unfortunately, public discourse is too often driven by ideologues at either extreme of an issue rather than responsible, moderate voices that might lead the way in a rational, responsible manner. I hope that one day our society can get past the longstanding irrational fear of new things and handle inventions and discoveries and a responsible, rational manner.

Kevin Hall
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