Ethics and algorithms are one of those conversations that can stretch on and on for hours and never hit an irrelevant topic (or, at least, it did for us). A lot of what we discussed has come up in class before, specifically surrounding digitization. It is easy for us, as historians, to forget that many of the sources we turn to have a very personal history behind them. In some cases, the people that are part of those histories are very much alive and may not want an item digitized, let alone published on the internet.
One of the examples of such a situation that my discussion group came up with was perhaps a little unorthodox, but still just as compelling. There may exist models who have taken, let’s say, risqué photographs to be published in a magazine before the dawn of the internet. They consented to them being published in a magazine, which would have a more limited audience and reach. Now, however, someone may choose to digitize and publish those photos on the internet—now the audience and potentially global reach of such photos is beyond anything the model originally consented to. The question then is of ethics: is it truly ethical to digitize such content beyond the model’s original consent, especially when they could still be alive and in danger of the consequences?
Despite studying the humanities, I think it is really easy for historians to forget the human element of our work in this age of digital achievement. To borrow a line from Jurassic Park: we were so preoccupied with whether or not we could, we didn’t stop to think if we should. Of course, ethics and digitization go well beyond this rather simplistic example as given above, but it captures a significant foundation in the digitization debate.