Computer ethics in the workplace is a relatively new, but quickly growing field of study. As computers become more prevalent in the workplace, more organizations publish official codes of ethics that cover computer use. The rapid advances in technology can sometimes leave ethical considerations behind, as was seen recently with widespread, sometimes illegal music file sharing over the internet. When faced with a new technological dilemma, ethical computer workers use historical and general guidelines to make informed decisions.
Norbert Wiener coined the term “cybernetics” shortly after basic computers were used in WWII. In his book, of the same name, he predicted a second industrial revolution, one based on communication technology. Wiener went on to write “The Human Use of Human Beings” (1950), which explored the ethical implications of cybernetics, both inside and outside the workplace. Wiener spoke about humans' capability for grasping, processing and potentially acting on vast amounts of information. He also offered ethical guidance to help people in this process. Wiener’s three cybernetic ethical principles are freedom, equality and benevolence. Wiener saw computers as exemplifying freedom by resolving time and resource-consuming issues. He saw communication technology as an equalizer, because it offers a level ground for ideas -- i.e., a famous person and an average person all get the same amount of cyberspace to communicate their ideas. Computers also offer benevolence, because through the newfound freedom and equality, social issues and ethical issues can be discussed and resolved.
The computers of the Information Age have taken over workplaces. They've eliminated some jobs and made other jobs easier. For example, food workers, factory employees and even airline pilots push one button to perform a series of actions that would've taken several actions, and more time, without computers. This “one button” execution may be viewed as unethical, because it can lead to a workforce with fewer skills. Other ethical concerns include the health and safety of workers who become stressed from constant typing, or who develop eyestrain from staring at computer screens for hours at a time.
Ethical computer workers must consider that now, information can be shared with the click of a mouse. Therefore, they need to protect privacy, both their own and coworkers'. Company confidentiality is another privacy-related concern. Ethical workers are mindful that they shouldn't use their computers to spread company secrets. Plagiarism and pirating are other concerns. Ethical workers ensure that they properly attribute sources, never claim another’s work as their own, and refrain from illegally obtaining art, music, movies and other materials.
Many official company codes of ethics include subsections on computers in the workplace. Computer ethics codes often feature guidelines based on the responsibilities that computer work creates. For example, a worker using a computer to communicate could reach a number of different people such as: other employees, family members, clients, the boss or the public. Each contact may require a different message, or method of approach.
The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) computer ethics code lists several imperatives. ACM requirements include: avoiding actions that might harm others; honesty; professional competence; and a working knowledge of technical law. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) adds principles such as avoiding conflicts of interest, and backing up claims with solid data.
Roslyn Frenz started writing professionally in 2005, covering music, business ethics and philosophy. Her work has appeared in "Designing Wealth," "The Other Side," "Upstate Live" and many other publications. Frenz has a bachelor's degree in business marketing from the University of Phoenix. She is pursuing an M.F.A. in creative writing.