A Facebook friend of mine – who’s also a friend in real life – posted this question recently: “What one piece of technology should be eliminated for the good of humanity?” Suggestions included the fax machine, cell phones, and Facebook. Some of the responses generated additional comments, such as the “sad but true” observation that without Facebook, civilization as we know it would crumble and fall. Several people chimed in about cell phones, noting that although they were good, they should require a license to operate. Or that texting while driving should be illegal.

I could list pros and cons of virtually every type of technology now in use today. I’m sure you could, too. There are ways in which each of them has improved our lives greatly. But there are also ways in which they’ve taken things away from us. Our privacy. Our quiet time when no one can interrupt us – or feel that they have the right to. Our need to figure things out for ourselves, and the satisfaction that comes when we do.

My contribution to the discussion was this: “I’m tempted to say, ‘Any camera or camera feature small enough to take and distribute pictures of people without their knowledge or consent.’ I know they can be used for good and important work by documenting crimes and other wrongdoing. But they are such an intrusion and invasion of privacy and decency, in way too many cases.”

In response, my friend noted that this was indeed a serious problem.

“I’d like to keep my camera feature,” he wrote, “but we do need our sense of ethics to catch up with this technology.”

Ironically, this Facebook discussion took place shortly after the devastating explosions at the Boston Marathon last week, but before security cameras and private videos helped authorities to identify and locate the brothers who planted and set off the bombs.

I don’t think there could be a more effective – though tragic – example of the good that private photos and videos can do. But the graphic images from the explosions and the aftermath, and the photos of the brothers responsible, don’t erase or counteract the distressing reports and descriptions of lives that have been shattered and lost because of private or inappropriate incidents that were recorded and forwarded by people whose only purpose was to hurt and humiliate others.

I think my friend was right when he said our sense of ethics needs to catch up with technology. But I don’t think the real problem is that technology advances so quickly that ethics can’t keep up. I think that at some point in recent years, ethics simply fell by the wayside. Or were deliberately discarded.
Ethics govern our sense of right and wrong, and the values by which we live. When “Nothing matters but the bottom line,” and “Winning at all costs” became the norm in business, sports, and life, it’s understandable that values such as honesty, honor, and integrity got tossed aside as unnecessary and unproductive. We’ve all lost out in the process, to the point that today, not only do many people not care about the difference between right and wrong, they don’t even know what it is.

Just the other day I read a newspaper article about education officials trying to get effective protocols in place to keep students from cheating on exams. It mentioned incidences – and a recent scandal – involving teachers as well as students cheating, since the students’ test scores had an effect on teachers’ paychecks and school budgets for the future.

No matter where we look, it’s easy to find – in fact, it’s probably impossible not to find – serious breaches of ethics and integrity. And I’d love to discover the teacher, technology, force of nature, or Divine intervention that could turn this around.

I don’t know what the answer is, but one of my hopes and dreams for our country and the world is that ethical behavior will not only catch up with technology, but will somehow become the guiding light in all areas of our lives. I want to live in a society where doing the right thing is more important than doing the smart thing. Where treating others – and ourselves – with respect is the norm, rather than the exception. And where “What can I do to help you?” is a more common concern than “What’s in it for me?”

If you have any suggestions, ideas, or words of encouragement and inspiration on the subject, I’d love to hear them. I’d also love to share them in a future column – and with the friend on Facebook who posed the original question.

Unless Facebook has been eliminated by then, for the good of humanity.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on April 25, 2013.
©Betty Liedtke, 2013

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