A Cmmon Risk

A common risk, run by many forewords, is to bother the reader by repeating, sometimes less accurately, what the table of contents of the book already specifies or (and unfortunately this is often an inclusive or) by eulogizing the text and the author, plastering comments that look like semantic clones lifted from a myriad of other texts. It is in order to try to avoid both pitfalls that I shall skip here the usual hypes – which the book and its author do deserve, make no mistake – in order to speak to the reader a bit more frankly and hence, I hope, less uninformatively.

Like the previous edition, this third edition has all the usual virtues of a good textbook: it is carefully researched, clearly written, and argued intelligently. Yet these are basic features that we have come to expect from high-standard scholarship and do not make it special. That Charles Ess has written a good textbook is uninteresting. That he might have written an excellent (and now newly updated) one is what I would like to argue. What the book offers, over and above its competitors, are some remarkable and, to my knowledge, unique features. Let me be schematic. The list is not exhaustive, nor do the listed features appear in order of importance, but there is a good narrative that keeps them together.

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First, the topic. The book addresses the gray but crucial area of ethical concerns raised by digital media. Of course, it is flanked on the shelf by many other textbooks in information and computer ethics, data ethics, AI ethics, and digital ethics (the terminology varies but topics often overlap), even more so than when the second edition was published, but, as Charles Ess well explains, this is not one of them, and it sticks out for its originality. For the book tackles that messy area of our ordinary lives where ethical issues are entangled with digital mass media, communication artifacts, information technologies of all sorts, computational processes, computer-mediated social interactions, algorithms, and so forth. Indeed, it is one of its virtues that it tries to clarify that “so forth” which I have just somewhat surreptitiously added in order to spare myself the embarrassment of a lack of a clear definition. As Schrödinger once said in a different context, this is a very sharp picture of a rather fuzzy subject.

Second, the approach. The book has all the required philosophical rigor, but, once again, this is not its most impressive feature. It is also graced by a light touch, which means that Ess has avoided being either prescriptive or proscriptive (you will not be told what to do and what not to do), opting in favor of an enlightened (liberal, in his own words), critical description of the problems discussed. This is a noteworthy advantage, since the author empowers the reader, as should be (but often is not) the case with similar texts. Having said all this, the feature that I find unique and outstanding (in the literal sense that it makes this book stand out on the ideal shelf of other comparable books) is its capacity to combine a pluralistic approach – without the bitter aftertaste of some crypto-relativism – with a well- informed and timely look into non-Western views on the ethical issues it tackles. This is crucial. Following a remarkable tradition of German philosophers (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hegel), Ess makes a sustained and successful effort to bring together Eastern and Western ethical traditions in an enriching and fascinating synthesis. And he achieves all this thanks to his extended, international experiences with a variety of cultures. If you wish to see how masterfully he avoids syncretism, relativism, and dogmatism and succeeds in shaping an overview of the field which is both captivating and ethically robust, you need to read the book. This was already a great feature of the second edition – it is now quite essential given the importance of China’s role in the development of digital technologies and solutions.