ReImagine Talks – Jeroen van den Hoven: “We should not release into society technology that we can’t defend in terms of underlying (ethical) values”

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Jeroen van den Hoven is Professor of Ethics and Technology and Scientific Director of the Delft Digital Ethics Center, at Delft University of Technology. Currently, he is Editor-in-chief of the journal “Ethics and Information Technology” and a Permanent member of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, appointed by the President of the European Commission. In the new episode of the podcast ReImagine Talks, Professor van den Hoven delves into the concept of ethics, how to translate it to the 21st century and the impact of technology and the digital world in reimagining ethics.  

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Although it is not a “precise” science, ethics are still very popular nowadays. Everyone is doing ethics, yet Professor Van den Hoven reminds us that to be able to address today’s challenges it is important to rethink our ethics so it can respond to the scale and complexity of the 21st century society: “We cannot solve the problems we are confronted today with the ethics that we have developed over thousands of years”. “There is a lot of insights that are still very relevant today, but we need to configurate it in a very different way”, he explains. The ethical model in place today originated “from a time where we were basically at the fireplace, where everything was very close. We had a unity of time, place, action, and agents. Now, we must scale up our ethics to deal with completely different problems”.   

Interviewed in the new episode of the podcast ReImagine Talks, the Professor of Ethics and Technology at Delft University of Technology defended that ethics should be given its proper place, working side by side with innovation, since today it is easier to “forget about the interests of others because we are so involved in the pursuit of our own interests”. “We cannot just assume that everyone will be able to take responsibility and act accountably around innovative technology and its applications. Technology should be geared towards and used to solve important and relevant problems”.  

Only by considering ethics in the design thinking process can it be possible to achieve responsible innovation. According to the Professor, “We should really not release into society things that we haven’t carefully thought about and that we can’t defend in terms of the underlying and embedded values”. Innovations must be carefully scrutinised to understand if they will solve any problem, create new or even deepen existing ones. To enable this, ethical and moral issues should have a prominent place in the education of everyone and in the training of engineers and business or administration professionals. By fostering critical ethical thinking, citizens and the general population should start thinking and deciding if innovations are necessary or are being forced upon because of “some quarterly revenue thinking or short-termism”. “It is innovative but is it good?”. For example, the permanent member of the European Group on Ethics highlighted that the European Commission’s action on privacy and data protection made privacy-by-design the way forward.  

When questioned about the necessity to incorporate ethics in the present democracy in a digital society, Jeroen van den Hoven was clear now that there is less than a year left until the next European Elections.  “Use the technology to support NGOs, citizens, civil society at large, that wants to experiment with new forms of democracy”. It is necessary to reconceptualise our ethical vocabulary and instruments and to pay attention to the civility of the discourse of a public debate.  

Professor van den Hoven challenges us to start “designing for democracy, to come up with novel ideas of representation, involvement, inclusion, participation, all these extremely important parameters or functionalities of democracy. Then, try to embed them in platforms or digital technologies, validate and experiment to see whether that works”. Recalling the words of the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, democracy is something that we need to experiment with every day.  

ReImagine Ethics is the fourth chapter of the ReImagine TALKS, a series of video podcasts launched by the think tank Re-Imagine Europa together with leading media partners and featuring some of the most innovative, influential, and original thinkers of our time, challenging conventional thinking and reimagining the concept with an unexpected and contemporary lens. The series is hosted by Erika Stäel von Holstein and Luca de Biase, RIE’s Chief Executive and Research Director, respectively. The first three episodes delved into Reimagine Capitalism with Harvard Business School’s Professor Rebecca Henderson, Reimagine Power with University of Southern California’s Professor and former Spanish Minister Professor Manuel Castells and Reimagine Trust with the Internet pioneer and thinker Lisa Gansky. 


Stay tuned for the next chapters! 

You can watch or download the series on Youtube, Spotify, Apple Podcast, and Amazon Music