Twitter Incites Brawl – Toward Forward-Looking Sociotechnological Praxis

When email first came out there were many instances of people hitting “send” in a fit of rage and regretting the mouse click later. Such technological remorse continues to occur today. With the public, instantaneous nature of modern technology it is easy to lose sight that our words, whether via blog, email, or twitter, can incite violence or encourage peace.

This was made particularly relevant in a brawl that occurred between the Xavier and Cincinnati basketball teams. Before the game, players from Cincinnati called out players from Xavier via twitter. This set the stage for a competitive game between cross-town rivals to morph into a fist-flying, foot-stomping gang bang. While there is plenty of blame to go around from undisciplined coaches to unsupervised athletes, it is important to reiterate that words regardless of their medium have the power to hurt or heal.

There are many who feel that our technology is fast out-pacing our moral capacity to handle it. A mathematical way of putting this could be: Is the amount of time and energy we are putting into developing our moral capacity equal to or greater than the amount of research, development, and time spent with new technologies?

In an essay entitled “Children of Invention,” Morton Winston, a professor of philosophy at the College of New Jersey and a former Chairman of the Board of Directors of Amnesty International USA, wrestles with this question:

“The fact that a particular device or technology, is available for human use does not, by itself imply that we ought to adopt and use that technology, nor does it tell us how the technology should or should not be used. We can and do make moral judgments concerning the various sociotechnological practices associated with different products of technology. We accept some uses as morally legitimate, find others morally questionable or problematic, and we take steps to restrict or out law certain other uses to which these devices may be put.

Moral reasons are those that involve ethical principles governing notions such as fairness, justice, equality, duty, obligation, responsibility and various kinds of rights. In most ethical decisions, such reasons contend with other nonmoral reasons for actions based on prudence or self-interest, efficiency, and economy. From the moral point of view, ethical reasons ought always override nonmoral reasons for action.

As individuals, we are the consumers and users of the products of technology in our everyday lives; as workers or students, we belong to and participate in institutions or organizations whose policies and practices can affect our health and well-being; and as citizens, we all must be concerned about the ethical issues we face because of modern technology.

Many potential threats to human well-being have been identified, and others no doubt soon will be. Understanding these problems requires a level of scientific and technological literacy that few of our children are achieving in standard curricula.

The notion of responsibility that we need to cultivate is not the backward-looking notion of responsibility as liability, which seeks to allocate blame for past harms, but the forward-looking sense of responsibility in which each of us and every organization and institution “takes responsibility” for future generations of humans and the nonhuman species with whom we share this planet. This notion of social responsibility, although it is voluntary and discretionary, places real demands on us as individuals and members of communities and requires that we think carefully about the decisions and choices that we make.”

While the use of twitter by young men to incite a brawl may not rise to the moral implications of the use of other technology, like for instance the nuclear bomb, it is a reminder that any technology however small is only as “good” as the human who uses it and that we must have the moral capacity to use it responsibly and wisely if at all.

December 2011

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