A. Democratising the development of technology
New technology always has unexpected and unintended consequences. If a municipality is too much led by reports from citizens via an app when it comes to the maintenance of public spaces, there is a risk of discrimination: in poorer neighbourhoods, where people are less proficient at complaining digitally, street furniture is not repaired as quickly as elsewhere. Sensors that monitor the well-being of elderly people living alone do not always deliver the promised time savings for care workers and informal carers; for example, some people deliberately leave the refrigerator door open for too long, just to receive a phone call from a carer.
We can try to anticipate by drawing lessons from the past and sketching scenarios for the future. Governments can benefit from the knowledge and imagination of historians, philosophers, ethicists, and artists to map the possible consequences of technological innovations for people and society.
One way to reflect on the unforeseen consequences of technology is the development of techno-moral vignettes: fictional scenarios, written or visual, about the (ethical) changes that technology may bring about. How freely do we move through the city, for example, when cameras with facial recognition hang everywhere? Or when passers-by, using smart glasses such as the Google Glass, are capable of uncovering our identity and consulting our social media profiles?
Any government can bring together thinkers, experts, and citizens in an impact assessment committee that provides solicited and unsolicited advice on new technologies. For instance, such a committee can sound the alarm if it thinks the precautionary principle needs to be applied. This principle dictates that when human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.
Scientists disagree on the risks that electromagnetic fields pose to public health. The Belgian region of Flanders applies a strict limit for the electromagnetic radiation of antenna stations for telecommunication in the vicinity of homes, schools, and nurseries. In some other EU countries, there are no legal limits. Now that the deployment of the fast 5G network will lead to a considerable increase in the number of small antennas, it is up to municipalities in those countries to decide whether or not they curb radiation, as a precaution.
Regular evaluation is required with the introduction of technological innovations. Technology needs a constant critical look, including by audit authorities and ombuds(wo)men. For example, research into neighbourhood watch apps shows that these apps, instead of improving security, can fuel fear, mutual distrust, discrimination, and vigilantism.
Unforeseen damage should not be passed on to society or affected individuals. Designers and providers of technology, as well as the companies and authorities that make use of it, must take responsibility.