Questions of the production, access, and control of information will be at the heart of moral challenges surrounding the use of information technology.One might argue that the situation just described is no different from the moral issues revolving around the production, access, and control of any basic necessity of life.
For those troubled by the ontological questions regarding information, we might want to simply focus on the symbols and define information as any meaningfully ordered set of symbols.
Mathematicians and engineers prefer to focus on this aspect of information, which is called “syntax” and leave the meaningfulness of information or its “semantics” for others to figure out. Shannon working at Bell Labs in the forties produced a landmark mathematical theory of communication (1948).
In fact, the list is growing constantly and new forms of these technologies are working their way into every aspect of daily life.
They all have some form of computation at their core and human users interface with them mostly through applications and other software operating systems.
One famous example can be found in the “Chinese Room Argument” (Searle 1980) in which the philosopher John Searle argued that even if one were to build a machine that could take stories written in Chinese as input and then output coherent answers to questions about those stories, it would not prove that the machine itself actually understood what it was doing.
The argument rests on the claim that if you replaced the workings of the machine with a person who was not a native Chinese speaker who would then painstakingly follow a set of rules to transform the set of Chinese logograms input into other output symbols.
In this work he utilized his experiences in cryptography and telephone technologies to work out a mathematical formulation describing how syntactical information can be turned into a signal that is transmitted in such a way as to mitigate noise or other extraneous signals which can then be decoded by the desired receiver of the message (Shannon 1948; Shannon and Weaver 1949).
The concepts described by Shannon, (along with additional important innovations made by others who are too many to list), explain the way that information technology works, but we still have the deeper questions to resolve if we want to thoroughly trace the impact of information technologies on moral values.
A basic type of information technology might be the proverbial string tied around one’s finger that is used to remind, or inform, someone that they have some specific task to accomplish that day.
Here the string stands in for a more complex proposition such as “buy groceries before you come home.” The string itself is not the information, it merely symbolizes the information and therefore this symbol must be correctly interpreted for it to be useful.