Ulysses knew how to pass safely by the coast of the Sirens. In the Odyssey, we are told how he instructed his sailors to put wax in their ears, bind him tightly to the mast, and by no means release him until they had passed the Sirens’ island. Ulysses knew that the Sirens’ temptation was such that he won’t be able to resist it without restraint. He knew that the wonderful Sirens’ song meant in truth destruction. It had, therefore, to be resisted.
Technology has a sweet, melodic and very attractive singing. It promises humans to do, make and achieve the impossible. It wonders us at all ages, and we fall quickly for its wonders. We imagine new perfect worlds that will bring us happiness and plenty, all thanks to our technological advances. Yet the Sirens of technology, if not resisted, can easily bring us to destruction. History is witness of this danger.
Technology and ethics are intimately related. How we approach and use technology is very much conditioned by our ethical values. Therefore, the construction of a society based solely on technological disruption is a dangerous evolution. For our behaviours, as individuals, groups and as society as whole are transformed unknowingly by these new technologies without the restraint of ethical principles that would, otherwise, guide our conduct in more beneficial directions. When Ulysses ordered its sailors to bind him to the mast and keep him there, he was imposing on himself an ethical principle to resist the temptation of the Sirens. He was telling his sailors not to follow his orders in any circumstances; he was innovating to resist a path he knew will bring him destruction.
Since the enlightenment and particularly since the XIX century, Western civilization has based great part of its social, economic, scientific and political development on technological advance. Despite all technological revolutions it has gone through, there hasn’t been an equivalent ethical revolution to help us cope with the transformations that they implied. Instead, we are now living in-between a conservative Christian ethic, which did indeed suffer a great transformation during the Reformation, and a materialist ethic based on external impulses of consumption and accumulation, ignoring other principles and values that form the complex nature of a human being, creating therefore what Durkheim called “anomie“: a lack of social ethics that produces “moral deregulation and an absence of legitimate aspiration.”
The Internet is the technological revolution of our era. At the same time, it is by and IN itself a social revolution. There are those, many, that want to see mainly its positive aspects. Or those that mostly focus on its negative consequences. Yet the nature of the disruption and revolution of the Internet depends not in the technology itself, but in the context where it is immersed, and how this context changes accordingly or not. A very important part of this environment is our ethics. If we use the Internet within our current ethics, I am afraid it won’t be as good as the optimists want us to believe. It is urgent, I believe, that we discuss seriously our values and principles that should drive our lives, and that we spread them in dialogue with the people. And it is in this need where we see the complexity of social phenomena; for the Internet is, at the same time, the perfect instrument and space to do so. In fact, I think it’s already happening at a small scale. How successful this ethical disruption and revolution in the making can be won’t be determined by a technological feat, but by many other factors that organize our human lives, among them our own will to bind ourselves to the mast.