How to use science fiction to teach tech ethics

Science fiction writer/lawyer Casey Fiesler is a maven in the field of tech ethics education (she maintains the amazing spreadsheet of tech-ethics syllabi); she uses science fiction stories as a jumping-off point for her own classroom discussions of ethics in technology.

In a fascinating essay for How We Get To Next, Fiesler describes how speculative fiction has given her students the tools to contemplate both the unforeseen potential for harm and for good in different kinds of technology, and to think through the engineering, marketing and policy decisions that can alter those outcomes for better or for worse.

Fiesler is kind enough to mention my own work as useful in these exercises, among a great list of authors and works that she has used successfully in her classrooms.

These exercises and ideas are all in service of the way I like to think about teaching ethics — that it’s about critical thinking more than anything else. There are rarely black-and-white answers for anything. And speculation is one way to start to see the gray areas and edge cases. To be clear, we shouldn’t actually be designing regulation for technology that may or may not arrive — I don’t think we have to worry about legislating a robot’s right to own property just yet. But if you can think speculatively about the ethical implications of the technology that someone else might create in 50 years, you can think speculatively about the ethical implications of the technology that you might create next week.

I hope that these ideas are useful for others in thinking through ethics in a learning environment! I also note that these exercises are not just intended for an “ethics” classroom — being able to creatively speculate is a great skill for technology designers anyway, which is one of the benefits of design fiction (see two examples of mine). And considering the possible negative consequences of technology should be part of everyday practice — after all, ethics is not a specialization!

Finally, it is important to remember that science fiction isn’t for everyone, and using it too heavily in a technological context can also serve to reinforce stereotypes. So be mindful, too, about both the producers and consumers of science fiction, and be thoughtful about its further implications. (Let’s face it, a lot of sci-fi is pretty problematic as well!)

Black Mirror, Light Mirror: Teaching Technology Ethics Through Speculation [Casey Fiesler/How We Get to Next]

(via Four Short Links)

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