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By mid-March, teachers all over the world were faced with a tough challenge: a rapid transition to online education would have to be made. This prompted hilarious commentaries, such as this adaptation of Gloria Gaynor’s biggest hit,  I Will Survive, Coronavirus version for teachers going online. The teacher in question chastises herself: “I should have kept up with the tech, not skipped that class on course design.

The first lecture that I had to set up online in March (on Blackboard Collaborate Ultra) dealt with ‘The Imperative of Responsibility. In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age‘ by Hans Jonas, an influential book on the ethics of technology (1979). That was an uncanny coincidence that I couldn’t have foreseen when I originally drew up the course and timetable prior to the cyberattack on Maastricht University and pre-corona crisis.

In the first chapter Jonas explains how we became lords and masters thanks to technology. Modern technology extends our radius of action: the impact of our actions is more extensive than ever. This breadth and scale compel us to adopt new ethical codes that also make humankind morally responsible for generations as yet unborn, as well as the planet, flora and fauna, the environment, and the entire biosphere. In order to stand up to nuclear threats, environmental devastation, and so on, Jonas called for ‘a new reflection on ethical principles’ that underlines our accountability. A new ethical framework was called for because ‘the scope of human action and, therefore, responsibility’ was too narrowly defined.

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The ambiguity of the term technology is brought to the fore in these times of corona. A feeling of futility facing the power of a virus. We are not lord and master of everything, largely because there is no vaccine. It instills a greater sense of humility and vulnerability. There’s also the role of aviation that spread the virus faster around the world. Yet to cite a more positive example, also the upsurge in digitalization. Whereby we can facetime and enjoy ‘e-peritifs‘ during lockdown periods, and which allows us to get on with our work.

This week’s broadcast of the popular Dutch science TV program De Kennis van Nu (The Knowledge of Now) explored the question of what will happen if the internet breaks down. The cyberattack on Maastricht University (UM) was also covered in detail. Digitalization makes our society more robust, but at the same time we are vulnerable to data leaks, hacking … If the corona crisis had hit Dutch terrain a few months earlier, the prompt transition to online education at UM would have proved extremely difficult. We could not access our work e-mail, nor the names of our students, nor online platforms such as Blackboard, to name just a few things.

With the knowledge of today, we can still feel relieved that the crises succeeded one another and did not coincide. In a wonderful comic strip by Calvin & Hobbes, Calvin, who is in a precarious situation and is imagining how much worse it could get, says: “That’s one of the remarkable things about life. It’s never so bad that it can’t get worse.” So, that kind of sums things up.

About this column

In a weekly column, alternately written by Hans Helsloot, Eveline van Zeeland, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Tessie Hartjes and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Read all the previous IO columns in this series here.

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About the author

Author profile picture Katleen Gabriels is a moral philosopher specializing in computer ethics at Maastricht University. She conducts research into the relationships between morality and computer technologies.