Relaxed senior adult wearing eyeglasses works on a laptop computer at home.

At least in the developed world, technology pervades all aspects of human life, and its influence is growing constantly. Major technological challenges include automation, digitalisation, 3 D printing, and Artificial Intelligence. Does this pose a need for a concept of “technological justice”? If we think about what “technological justice” could mean, we see that the concept is closely connected to other concepts of justice. Whether we are talking about social justice, environmental justice, global justice, intergenerational justice, or gender justice – at some point we will always refer to technology. It looks as if a concept of technological justice could be useful to draw special attention to technology’s massive impact on human lives, although the respective problems of justice can also be captured by more familiar concepts.

New technological developments raise issues of distributive justice, epistemic justice, environmental justice, and so forth. Is there anything that can be said to constitute a specific problem of technological justice, something that is not adequately captured by any other concept of justice? I am inclined to answer this question negatively. The main purpose of a concept of technological justice, it seems to me, would be to draw attention to the influential role of technology in human life and to the ways in which technological developments can widen existing inequalities, create new ones, and reinforce problems of social justice, intergenerational justice, etc. Although other more familiar concepts of justice seem sufficient for explaining the respective problems, we might nevertheless want to add that concept to our repertoire in order to do justice to the huge impact of technology on human lives.

The idea of technological justice seems closely linked to participation. Participation in the life of one’s society (individual level), and participation in the global economy and global politics (state level). A minimal requirement for technological justice at the individual level could be that no one is excluded from the use of technologies that are necessary for full societal participation. This raises several questions: which technologies are necessary for full societal participation? Who decides this? For instance, is it, in a country like the Netherlands or Germany, necessary to have a smartphone? One might be inclined to answer “yes”. Without a smartphone, you are excluded from all WhatsApp groups, and you will fail to fulfil many expectations, such as that you are always reachable, that you call when you are late because you are stuck in a traffic jam, or that you “share your location”. Yet there are examples of people who deliberatively do not have a smartphone like my father (he doesn’t have any mobile phone), and who nevertheless participate actively in social life. I myself became a smartphone user only recently (I had an old-fashioned mobile phone before though) and my experience is that it slowly became more and more difficult to get along without one.

When I searched for “technological justice” on the internet, I got only a few results, and they focused on the international and intergenerational level. In a blog post from January 26, 2012, Simon Trace, at that time CEO of the international development charity Practical Action, defines technological justice as “the right of people to decide, choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same”. This definition emphasises technological inequalities within and between societies as well as the effects that our use of technology has on future generations. According to Trace, there are two big problems with technology innovation and dissemination today. First, they strongly favour the “wants” of rich consumers in the developed world over the needs of the poor in developing countries. Second, they strongly prioritise the endeavours of today’s generation over those of future generations.

The inequalities between developed and developing countries are also at the centre of another interesting article on the topic, published in 2018. There the authors point to the “dialectical relationship between technology and society: technology is both part of the solution to societal challenges and part of the problem”. They believe that the concept of technological justice can reconcile “these two faces”, as it connects technology “with our aspirations for social justice and greater equality between economies”. A major demand of technological justice is to overcome the “gender digital divide”.

I would say that ultimately, using technology in a way that respects future generations, and overcoming the gender digital divide are demands of intergenerational justice and gender justice respectively. At the same time, there seems to be nothing wrong with categorising them as demands of technological justice in order to give special emphasis to the role of technology.

I am an Assistant Professor in Ethics of Technology at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. Previously I worked as teaching fellow at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation in Venice, as lecturer in social philosophy at Maastricht University, and as postdoctoral researcher at Utrecht University. I hold a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. My husband and I live in Baarn, a village in the province of Utrecht, together with our two daughters Philine and Romy.