6 reasons why we need responsible firekeeping in tech

In the expanse of technological innovation, the unexpected sparks of creation can ignite at any moment. The embers of generative AI, smouldering with potential and crackling with energy, have recently burst into a roaring wildfire that has swept across the digital landscape.

Some organisations are like reckless adventurers, tossing fuel onto the blaze and watching it spread, captivated by its mesmerising dance. And, thanks to various systems dynamics, specifically in the form of ecologically perverse incentives, these organisations are basically doing what they’re ‘supposed’ to be doing. They rush headlong into the flames, starting generative AI fires that grow and spread. Bringing a risk that all, including the creators, are consumed in the path that follows. This frenzied approach is the ‘move fast and break things’ mentality—thrilling but perilous, leading to unforeseen damage and relentless battles to control the inferno.

Where you are positioned on this spectrum is one of the workshop activities we run. Responses to Generative AI adapted from James Brusseau’s work on Acceleration AI Ethics.

At Tethix, we have imagined and begun embodying a different way. Picture your organisation as a wise and seasoned firekeeper. You intimately understand the power and danger of the flame. Rather than succumbing to temptation and starting a wildfire, you instead gather your team around a carefully constructed campfire. Here, the warmth and energy are harnessed, not feared. The flames are tempered, yet full of life giving potential and creative energy. This is responsible firekeeping—an approach to responsible innovation and product development that acknowledges fire’s raw power, yet treats it with respect and foresight.

Are you prepared to embark on this journey? Are you ready to exchange the chaos of the wildfire for the wisdom of the hearth, and discover a saner, more sustainable path to harnessing the transformative power of technology?

Balancing the elements

Technology is like fire. Exciting and powerful. Unpredictable and dangerous.

By developing responsible firekeeping skills, you can learn how to build safer campfires for your products and reduce the risk of the fire spreading uncontrollably or dying out.

Responsible firekeeping is about balancing the four elements of air, earth fire and water. Harnessing the richness and interconnectedness of these elements protects you and those around you. The process, outputs and outcomes bring warmth and light to you, your team, organisation and the broader ecology of stakeholders.

Welcome to Elemental Ethics, an ecologically grounded ethics framework that integrates with existing product development and innovation approaches.

Each of the four elements symbolise dynamic and interconnected practices of responsible firekeeping that must be harmonised.

AIR – Communication & Collaboration

It’s essential to provide adequate ventilation for your fire by making space for developing shared meanings and psychological safety, helping conversations flow in all directions within your organisation. By developing a culture of open and diverse collaboration, you can build windbreaks that protect your fire from strong winds of shifting public opinion.

EARTH – Research & exploration

Gathering different types of wood to keep your fire burning by exploring the forest and grounding your understanding to earth. Learn how to feed your fire with research from different disciplines, working with broader stakeholders with lived experience and inviting diverse experts to contribute to your campfire.

FIRE – Technology & Practice

The flame of innovation, technology, and practice is both alluring and dangerous. It’s what drives us forward, fuels our growth, and allows us to reach new heights. But unencumbered, it can wreak havoc, consume resources mindlessly, and even destroy the very fabric of our ethical being. We must learn to handle it with care, manage its intensity, and use its warmth to foster growth without letting it run wild.

WATER – Pause & Reflection

Bring a bucket of water by your campfire, not just as a safety measure but as a symbol of wisdom, balance, and moral imagination. In our technological pursuits, it’s vital to reflect on the impact of our work through rigorous self-assessment and thoughtful evaluation. Water represents our ability to pause in our relentless drive, to be mindful of potential dangers, and to nourish the ethical roots of our endeavours.

Why is this needed?

The conventional approach to cultivating an ethics framework in an organisation usually has the following characteristics:

  • The owners and leaders define the organisation’s purpose and values to steer direction and shape the culture of the organisation.
  • Based on an organisation’s purpose and values, a set of high-level principles are developed with the expectation that everyone in the organisation will be able to follow them in their daily practice.
  • External consultants or ethicists without first-hand experience of everyday ethical tensions in the field are usually included in the process.
  • As a result, principles can be difficult to understand, apply, and relate to for the people actually involved in product development, support, or other activities.
  • The entire process is top-down, and tensions that emerge in practice don’t easily bubble up and inform changes in the framework.

This approach is not without value. Principles can, in fact, be a good reflection of intent. But acting on intent is often harder than it seems. Many ethics frameworks collect dust. They struggle to progress from the poster on the wall. They risk remaining fairly static, housed in a notion or confluence space. Instead, they should be a living representation of the purpose, values and principles informed actions you and your colleagues take on a daily basis.

The 6 reasons…

Reason 1: Traditional approaches fall short

In an era where change is the only constant, traditional ethical frameworks remain far too static. Designed from the top, their intent may be pure, but they seldom echo the dynamic nuances of ‘on the ground’ realities. As a result, they risk becoming outdated relics, rather than practical and valuable guides.

Reason 2: Speed demands evolution

Tech doesn’t pause. We’re amidst innovation that redefines boundaries. Elemental Ethics and Responsible Firekeeping aren’t just a response; they’re an evolution. Together they represent a shift in the tech ethics landscape, ensuring that moral imagination is a living and breathing process that contributes to an increasingly technology enabled future we can all be proud of.

Reason 3: Doing ethics from the heart

Rather than a stagnant list of values, think of Elemental Ethics as the ethical heart of a team or organisation. It pulses, vibrates and adapts. Through this, ethics becomes more than the poster on the wall. It’s how we think, feel, see, act and be. It is the fabric of our daily lives. It inspires us, contributes to our shared sense of meaning and brings us genuine joy.

Reason 4: It’s all connected

A vote in the boardroom. A feature deprioritised. A model left unchecked. A customer complaint gone unnoticed. The choices we make ripple across spacetime. Elemental Ethics breathes life into this reality, helping you see the woods for the trees. From this more system-wide viewpoint, you are better positioned to make decisions and take actions that contribute to the betterment of the whole.

Reason 5: Holistic ethical culture

It’s been said that, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. In the context of ethics, this couldn’t be more true. Beyond the boring and burdensome, Elemental Ethics is interwoven into our ideas, customs and social behaviour. As a result, it contributes to the very nature of who we are, enabling us to more consistently live in alignment to what we care about most.

Reason 6: Bridging the gap

According to Sull et al. 2020, there isn’t even a statistical correlation between the stated, documented values of a corporation, and their culture. There is a widespread, deeply systemic, ethical intent to action gap. Elemental Ethics is the connective tissue – the mycorrhizal network if you will – that helps convert aspirations into embodied reality.

If you want to step beyond traditional, static ethical frameworks and engage with a living, breathing philosophy that resonates with today’s complex technological landscape, Elemental Ethics is the path forward.

It’s time to co-create a future where innovation and ethics dance in harmony.

At Tethix, we’ve designed workshops, tools, and consultations that can guide your organisation to build a safer campfire in the wild frontier of our sociotechnical future. Reach out if you’d like to begin this journey.

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