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The Ethics of the Future

With great power comes great responsibility, and when it comes to governing advances in technology, the humanities are more important than ever.

Those familiar with the golden age of sci-fi—or, alternatively, anyone who paid attention to 1984 during high school English—likely see the need for ethics when it comes to governing the use of technology. More than a few science fiction stories explore dystopian worlds where governments use tech to limit, surveil, and oppress. These stories provide a chilling look into all-too-possible futures, warning us against the dangers of a world where technology has outpaced our ability to harness it for our good. The solution? According to Sylvester Johnson, Associate Vice Provost for Public Interest Technology at Virginia Tech, it’s more investment in the humanities.

A picture of Sylvester Johnson overlaid on a blue graphic background.
Photo by BYU Humanities Center

In his presentation at the Humanities Center Colloquium on May 7, 2024, Johnson argued that the future of our world depends on the skills that people cultivate in the humanities. He said, “[Ensuring] that the very volatile and game-changing innovations we’re capable of producing get managed is actually going to depend on more than just technical expertise. It’s gonna depend on [the ability] to understand things like inequality or cultural systems, or to engage people to work on these.”

To understand the skills needed for the future, we first need to examine the past. Johnson began with a discussion on perhaps the beginning of the world as we know it today—the 1960s, when amidst the development and aftermath of world-changing weapons, a spirit of sobering concern seeped into policymaking. He explained that this led to the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, which established the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Beyond simply promoting the arts and humanities for the sake of their own inherent benefits, these organizations intended to support the development of people who could handle the increased responsibility for the available technology. Johnson said, “The emphasis was that it was not enough for our human society to be subject to the powers of technology; we needed to be masters of that technology.”

So what does it look like to apply human leadership to tech? Johnson closed his presentation with an example of how the European Union focuses on better data regulation by exploring the use of data trusts. A data trust is an organization that manages personal data for a group of people. The biggest global companies in the world—Google, Meta (Facebook/Instagram), or Amazon, to name a few—make billions of dollars off their users by harvesting their users’ data and selling it to other companies for advertising purposes. Data trusts operate under the idea that individuals deserve a chunk of the proceeds gained from the collection and sale of their data. However, the average person doesn’t have the time or expertise to properly advocate for themselves and reap the rewards. Data trusts assign a group of trustees familiar with data law to manage that data and hold companies accountable before the law. The EU’s intent is to make sure people receive fair compensation for the use of their data without them having to manage it themselves. “That’s an example of a societal innovation,” Johnson said. “It’s about trying to understand how capital flows, what the impacts are, and what a more equitable system might look like. . . . Those are very humanistic kinds of things that result from a comprehensive approach to technology.”

Billions—perhaps trillions—of dollars have been spent on technological innovation in the past seventy years. Johnson explains that we need the same kind of investment to be put into social innovation if we hope to create a better world with the tech we have. We must frame and govern technology within the lens of public interest, and Johnson believes we have started in that direction already. “We are on the verge of seeing a new set of developments that are going to foster new forms of humanities, new forms of arts, new forms of the way that leadership can emerge from humanistic disciplines as part of a comprehensive approach to discover this future,” he said. “Because it is, I think, going to be very complicated. But I also think it’s going to be an exciting set of opportunities.”

Find out more about Johnson’s work and career here.