What are the ethical implications of musetech work?

Posted on August 26, 2013

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There was an interesting article in the NYTimes Sunday Review yesterday. Unlike that article about museums and high culture, this one isn’t about museums. It’s about who should bear the moral responsibilities of new technologies:

Adapting to a new technology is like a love affair, said Ellen Ullman, a software engineer and a writer of essays and novels about the human element of computing. The devices, apps and tools seduce us, she said, and any doubts or fears we had melt away.

…But we cannot rely on the makers of new technology to think about the moral and privacy implications, she said. “There is not a lot of internal searching among engineers,” she said. “They are not encouraged to say, ‘What does that mean for society?’ That job is left for others. And the law and social norms trail in dealing with the pace of technical changes right now.”

Like the best articles, this one made me start to ask some questions. Like what are the ethical and moral implications of different emergent technologies in or from museums, such as various mobile apps or new kinds of data-gathering membership programs? There are obvious ones about concerns of violating privacy, but what about the less obvious ones? Does the display of high-res scanned works of art bring us too close to the art, as art theorist James Elkins proposes? Does digitisation of collections create new problems of inequity of representation, when particular objects are prioritised over others for digitisation? Is it more ethical to open content as the Getty has just done (yeah!) or to protect it as much as possible? (I think you can guess where I sit on this one.)

And then there are whole questions about collecting and curating (elements of) the Internet, and what happens if museums do, or don’t. Aaron Straup Cope, in his usual perceptive way, recently posted notes from a panel on innovative approaches to digital stewardship which included this little thought bomb:

…sometime around 2008 the then-and-current head of the NSA asked, reasonably enough it should be added, “Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time?” and so now we have among many others like it the Utah Data Center located just across the field from the Thanksgiving Point Butterfly Garden and Golf Club in Bluffdale Utah. This is, we’re told, where all the signals will live.

I mention this because it exposes a fairly uncomfortable new reality for those of us in the cultural heritage “business”. That we are starting to share more in common with agencies like the NSA than anyone quite knows how to conceptualize.

New technologies do prompt new kinds of ethical quandries. One of the most memorable snippets of conversation I’ve had in the last year or so was with a member of a museum’s senior executive who mentioned how important it was to have someone with a strong ethical compass in the leadership role, since almost all decisions about the museum needed to consider the long term ethical impacts of action. But that makes me wonder about whether it is just leaders who are or should be thinking about this stuff. Are those who work in museum technology roles responsible for trying to consider and anticipate the ethical and moral implications of their work/creations in advance, or does that just create unnecessary hesitation for things that will resolve themselves in time? Is this something you see as being part of your job, or is it something that others in the museum (such as executive or curatorial staff) are responsible for?

In her most recent post, MIa Ridge reminds us of the intellectual contributions that technologists (being those who have a domain knowledge of technology) make, even though they aren’t always encouraged to write about their work in the same way that scholars are. What I’m curious about is the ethical contributions that those working with new technologies make, and how much they play a role in guiding their institution’s approaches to such questions. Do these conversations, which are taking place cross-sector, permeate into individual institutions? And do they even need to, or is it enough that someone is talking about them?

What do you think? What ethical questions do new technologies in the museum context prompt for you? And whose responsibility is it to think about these questions?