What are the ethical implications of musetech work?

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?

6 thoughts on “What are the ethical implications of musetech work?

  1. Hi Suse

    From my seat here at MCA Australia, I find that the ethical responsibility for technology lies not only with myself and my closest colleagues who implement tech, but within all levels of the chain, from those dealing directly with the public to executive level.

    The reason for that is because each level brings a different perspective to the ethics of tech, moderated by their individual experiences. To give one example, the reticence that many parents feel about having their children included in photographs taken by Museum staff and those photographs rapidly disseminated through our different technologies is communicated by MCA Educators to me and others.

    That particular experience then informs my areas of decision making, conferring what I hope is a more ethical approach to that issue and the next area of tech I work with. I can then convey those concerns further up the chain, where they can be enacted within a different framework eg. curatorial or administrative.

    I firmly believe that those of us who work in the Museum sector – “Museum” acting here as a metonym for a mechanism that makes visible human activity, thought and achievement in a process that defines our collective culture – are behoven to act with due respect for an individual’s moral response in all our public-directed activities.

    And while I understand the process of normalisation that occurs when individuals are exposed to new tech, technology should in no way be exempt from that guardianship because of the ease with which it can circumvent ethical norms. To think about a new technology should be to think about the ethics of that new technology in an inseparable process.

    Cheers for the article, I enjoyed the read.

  2. Hi Suse,
    Interesting post, and reply from Tristan, my own thoughts echo what has been stated by you both. For caretakers of collections, and the multifaceted organisations that Museums can be, to port forward codes of conduct and more recently copyright permissions might be a bit to simplistic in the modern paradigm of changing tech.

    Certainly awareness and training play a part but there is also an unknown quantity of unseen advancements in tech and preparing ahead of change – is it even possible to prepare for this? advancing tech could breach privacy and copyright if for one example, hand-held scanners can download and then copy objects prefectly via 3D printers ? DNA is another area that may well do the same – recreating great-grandmother in some kind of digital form. And certinly indigenous materials will continue to carry specificprotocols into the future.

    For the time being it would seem that commonsense should prevail and that such questions or concerns be dealt with in the same way as security issues ot OH&S, in that, to remain relevant they be subject to periodic review.

    Thanks Suse for always writing such interesting stuff.



  3. Thanks both for such interesting responses. Tristan, I think your insight about the different perspectives that each person brings to the questions of ethics around technology in the museum is a really important one. The idea that museum work itself happens within different frameworks of perception and meaning offers a useful argument for bringing a variety of people from across the institution onto museum projects early enough for those different ethical perspectives to be taken into account.

    I also think your museum definition is a really lovely one, and in some ways touches on why I thought this was a questions worth asking specific to museums. As public institutions, then museums have particular responsibilities to the public that a private organisation making a new technology doesn’t necessarily have. That need to consider, and respond to, public concerns, and to balance the individual’s needs against the public or institutional needs is an important one that museums face frequently.

    Einar, you make really good points about the challenges of preparing for future ethical questions. To some extent, we do adapt and adjust our attitudes about new technologies and their implications only once they are already in the world – once there are test cases. So yes; periodic review is an import aspect of this.

  4. A couple of things occur to me:

    – how well do existing statements of museological ethics (eg. the ICOM ethics statement) reflect the current situation? As laws need to be updated to take into account new technological realities, do our ethics statements need a review as well
    – ethical ‘loopholes’ are often not well recognised by people who are on the side of “good” – there is a failure of imagination to see where “evil” may be done. Can we tap into this imagination before something bad happens which was unforeseen by the well-meaning? I’m wondering whether the musetech space has/ needs an equivalent of the white-hat hacker

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