You want to know my opinion on the ads that were placed on Facebook and Twitter last year with the intention to influence the American presidential election. To be honest, I think you already made the perfect analysis yourself. People will indeed always find unintended ways of using technologies and other means. And then there’s the immediacy of posting on Facebook and Twitter. Things will come online without delay and thus with very limited room for intervention of correction.
Perhaps that stems from the way things are generally done in the media: very limited checks before publication, but an evaluation - and taking lessons from that - afterwards. I found out about this practice when I visited the local newspaper one day, to learn how they managed to make a new product - the newspaper - every day, while it took us multiple years to develop a new x-ray machine. This approach is called ‘benchmarking best practices’.
The newspaper editors told us they worked by a set of simple rules, which everyone knew. For example: no negative publicity on the royal family. And they did not check any stories upfront for lack of time, but would discuss them the next morning instead. This is in line with Mark Zuckerberg’s quote: ‘We don’t check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I don’t think our society should want us to.’ In the case of the meddling ads the damage was done long before any evaluation took place, so it was irreversible.
Your second question, about the role ethics play in the development of new medical technology, had me thinking a bit longer. To be honest I can’t recall any deep discussions on the topic during my years in the development of new cardio vascular x-ray systems. Improving these systems usually means improving the treatment for the patient with better images, reduced doses of x-rays, etcetera.
Patient safety is of the greatest importance during the development cycle of these imaging systems, so hazard analysis and extensive testing are always part of the process. Part of that testing is to determine how to best move around a patient and how to protect them against potential collisions during the process.
During my first project I started these tests with myself as the patient on the table. Initially some my colleagues thought that was bad and unsafe plan. My answer was this: if we don’t even dare to lie on that table ourselves we can’t ask a patient to do so. So it became common practice for developers to voluntarily play the patient during some of the collision tests.
Now, at Eindhoven University of Technology, I am confronted with many more ethical questions, for instance about the development of implants like pacemakers and brain implants. People depend on these technologies and their quality of life can be at stake. One of our four faculties that are involved in these projects has its own ethics department.
During the development of new devices and apps healthy people and patients are also ‘used’ as test persons. There is an increasing amount of regulations governing these practices in the Netherlands. Every experiment has to comply with these rules and regulations, and test persons have to sign an agreement before joining in. All of this is also overseen by an ethics commission from the university.
Let’s move on from ethics to aesthetics. Can you tell me something about your art?