Why science-fiction doesn't help us identify emerging ethical dilemmas

Science-fiction helps us imagine what life would be like if we lived in a different world with different technology and different rules. It helps us think through ethical dilemmas and consider the implications of the introduction of a new technology, for example. Some good examples would be the criminalisation of thought, or the practice of pre-emptive arrest in the movie, 'Minority Report;' or the muddying of what it means to be human in the cult film, 'Blade Runner.'

These worlds are so foreign to us that the ethical dilemmas faced by the societies in them seem immediately obvious to us. It becomes immediately apparent just how bad the idea of arresting people before they have committed a crime actually is, that we can clearly see all the ways in which such a justice system could be manipulated to falsely accuse someone of a crime, or how such a system could be used against certain people holding contrarian views, to make them disappear. Yet, we don't necessarily get the same bad vibes from the fact that police forces use profiling on certain populations, neighbourhoods or individuals in our own world right now. We think big-data and algorithms are neutral and disinterested, but algorithms require human input and categories of big-data carry human biases.

Unfortunately for us, science-fiction has also trained us to only look for the glaringly obvious, paradigm-shifting changes in our cultures and technologies at the expense of seeing the same ethical dilemmas manifesting themselves in the slow and incremental, mundane march of good old-fashioned, real world, regular innovation. Even with our rapidly accelerating technological change of pace, we still don't experience the rapid materialisation of new worlds coming into being.

This has created somewhat of a problem for us. We are often blinded to the same order of ethical dilemmas and their consequences for our own way of life, as the dilemmas we readily identify in alternate worlds through science-fiction.

It turns out that home really is too close to home for us to be able to identify an emerging problem we would usually identify straight away in a foreign context.

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