Infrastructure as embodiments of power: gentle development

The development of 5G should not be associated with innovation alone, but also the development of humanity, which ought to be the main purpose of technical innovation

The ethics of technology affect human action in its development through artefacts, structures and infrastructures. What does an interpretation of this type entail with respect to a technological network like 5G and pervasive digitisation?

The significance of all this helps us to understand Langdon Winner, who provocatively asked whether technological artefacts have a political function in a famous study (see L. Winner, Do Artifacts Have Politics? in Daedalus 1-109 (1980), 121-136).

Winner showed that machines, structures and systems of modern material culture can be accurately judged not only in terms of their contribution to efficiency and productivity, or their beneficial or harmful side effects on the environment, but also by the ways they embody specific forms of power and authority. He offered some examples illustrating this political and social effect of technology. One of these deserves special attention. In his analysis of the construction of a series of overpasses built between the 1920s and 1970s on New York State roads leading to Long Island, it emerges that there was a precise political purpose behind them. Non-standard bridges, lower than in the rest of the country, would allow access to the beaches only to the white middle class, who owned cars, and not to all the other ethnic minorities who usually travelled by bus. Winner concluded that this and other examples of architecture and urban planning showed with glaring clarity that every technical device and every technological artifact is a way of building a form of order in the world.

Today, with the digital changes being introduced with 5G set to make ubiquitous computing possible in real time, we need to realise how prophetic Winner’s forecasts were. It is no longer a question of verifying or denying constitutional rights by building bridges made of concrete but by using algorithms, data profiling and access to communications.

Less than a hundred years ago communications relied physically on reinforced concrete. Today they are softer but no less effective and need to be understood.

Algorithms decide who can communicate with whom and using what data. These are the highways of today

The ethical issues here become radical. We have to develop technology while managing its social impact. However, the world of technology today is described by the category of innovation.

Innovation indicates a gradual advance or change that offers a progressive increase in capacity and potential. Not all progress is good or an improvement or brings only benefits.

To be able to speak of innovation as beneficial and guide it towards the common good, we need to qualify it in ways capable of describing how and which features of progress contribute to the good of individuals and society. For this purpose the category of “development” is used.

Human development should be understood as an end and not a means. It modifies progress by defining priorities and criteria. So speaking of development means not placing technical capacity at the centre of our attention but keeping people at the centre of our concerns and as the end that justifies progress.

For technology and our future we need a form of development that I would briefly describe as gentle. This is ethical and ethical choices are those that favour gentle development.