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A book on the ethics of interactions in cyberspace is both timely and important. The range and possibilities for interpersonal interactions in cyberspace are growing at an immense rate, and raise many ethical issues. Ploug sets out to explore whether cyberspace simply presents new ways for using technology to interact with others or whether it also raises entirely new ethical issues.
Ploug hinges his analysis on the phenomenological approach of Levinas, "Being face-to-face with another person does appear to influence the character of those of our actions which affect that other person" (p.5). He endeavors to extend Levinas' ideas through his analysis of the ethical character of interaction in cyberspace. For Levinas the idea of being face-to-face is ethically relevant. Ploug argues that there are moral differences to the ways people behave within and outside cyberspace. The question, for Ploug, is whether Levinas' ideas provide a sufficiently thorough means for analyzing ethical issues within the domain of cyberspace.
The book is written in three sections, nine chapters, and is designed to appeal to different readerships. Ploug invites readers (p.12) to read it as a whole; to read with a focus on belief in the reality of another person and the relationship between this belief and acting on moral concerns the (in which case read only sections 2 and 3); or to focus on underlying beliefs in reality (in which case only Chapters 5 & 6 are relevant). This invitation to engage at different levels is interesting but at the same time creates a stylistic difficulty for those who choose to read the entire book, as there are numerous repetitions of basic arguments and assumptions, and frequent summaries of conclusions or arguments still to be held. This makes some aspects of the book clumsy to read.
Aside from the stylistic issues with the book, there are numerous issues of grammar and expression. At times this leads to long sentences and to grammatical constructions where the meaning of the argument becomes obscured. Many of these issues are natural for someone for whom English is probably not their first language. Occasionally words seem to be used interchangeably, e.g. limited and limitations, p.78, however while related they do not necessarily have interchangeable meanings. In addition some words seem to be used out of place, the most annoying being the frequent use of the word "patient" to refer, I assume, to recipients or participants of an agent's actions. This is confusing and creates an impression that a medical scenario is being developed. Much of this indicates that the book should have been far more fastidiously proof read and edited.
All of this made reading the book frustrating, and added a layer of difficulty when trying to understand the essential arguments being put forward.
Chapter 4 presents a good example of some of my frustrations with the book. The Chapter commences with an overview of von Neumann machines and digital computers, leading to an introduction of electronic machines as the entry point to the internet. It is not clear what role all this introductory material plays in the text. Furthermore, it oversimplifies issues in order to pack the discussion into a mere 4 pages. This is followed by a definition of cyberspace and some examples of interaction in cyberspace. The examples given include internet banking, computer gaming, file sharing, and online shopping. However in the next paragraph (p.73) Ploug states that he will limit the book's focus to chat-rooms and telerobotic interaction. Having sparked my interest in a range of important and interrelated ethical issues, he states that he does not intend to discuss most of these.
Chat-rooms are broadly defined from simple synchronous electronic message posting systems all the way to programs such as Second-Life. Unfortunately, there is no argument outlining why we are to understand programs such as Second-Life merely as chat-rooms rather than as presenting another development of the technology entirely. Second-Life, arguably embeds a range of ethical issues into the rules under which the game is played -- and these ideas are not explored in the book. Teleoperation is identified as the ability to work on or control something remotely in real time (p.75-6), with some engaging examples but again the ethical extensions are hardly discussed.
A useful section of the book is the analysis of cyber-spatial interaction and its key properties (p.78-84). Further on a number of good examples are developed at the heart of this discussion, such as the joker argument (p.104-8), the mirage argument (p.123-6), the stockbroker argument (p.132-4), and the mannequin argument (p.148-9). I would have liked to see more developed discussion about how these relate to ethical issues in cyberspace, rather than leaving this extension to my imagination.
The introductory link to Levinas' thought is important and could have been developed further. Some discussion of other Philosophers occurs in the text, including Hume, Kant and Hobbes among others, but these are not sufficiently strongly linked to the overall argument of the book. It is a pity that the discussion is limited to chat-rooms and to a lesser extent telerobotics. There is scope for a phenomenological analysis of myriads of other ethical issue in cyberspace, including:
- commercial interactions in cyberspace (beyond just banking);
- questions raised by sites such as Second-Life where I can use 'real' money to purchase 'virtual' goods;
- marketing in cyberspace;
- the problems associated with copies or even forgeries of goods and how this differs from 'ordinary' shops;
- questions of my identity in cyberspace and how I portray myself e.g. on dating sites or through my Avatar. How is this identity related to me? Is there any extent to which my 'identity' in cyberspace is independent of me?;
- truth telling and lying in cyberspace especially related to personal interactions and relationships;
- questions of ethical values or virtues such as honesty and integrity and how these are practiced in cyberspace;
- piracy and file sharing;
- the meaning of 'space' within cyber-space;
- availability and use of information;
- and myriads of other issues.
In essence, I had expected a book which engaged far more strongly with issues of applied ethics through a phenomenological analysis. Ploug, however, seems more interested in ethical theory. His interest is in the logical relationships between different properties in cyberspace, how we establish and act on our beliefs about others, our beliefs about the world, what counts as reliable and relevant evidence, causality and understanding causal relationships, evidence and its status in cyberspace. To my mind, these are all important questions of epistemology, including for phenomenologists. It would possibly have been better to title this book 'Epistemology in Cyberspace' and extend the evident epistemological discussion. My frustration is that Ploug argues a number of epistemological issues e.g. "driving on the motorway differs from interaction in a chat-room precisely because it makes it physically impossible to obtain evidence of more specific and relevant properties of the individual" (p.194) but fails to examine the range of ethical issues connected to such examples.
Having expressed my frustrations with the book, I should make amends and indicate that Ploug has inspired me to think and read further about cyberspace and some of the ethical issues inherent in the development of this technology.
© 2010 Erich von Dietze
Dr Erich von Dietze, Manager, Research Ethics, Murdoch University, Western Australia