Autonomy and consent

By mollydb

When I was an undergraduate, I took a course on medical ethics. The core takeaways from the class were that autonomy is necessary for consent, and consent is necessary for ethical action.

There is a reciprocal relationship between autonomy and consent. We are autonomous creatures, we are self-governing. In being self-governing, we have the ability to consent, to give permission to others to interact with us in the ways we agree on. We can only really consent when we are self-governing, otherwise, it’s not proper consent. Consent also allows us to continue to be self-governing. By giving others permission, we are giving up some control, but doing so on our own terms.

In order to actually consent, we have to grasp the situation we’re in, and as much about it as possible. Decision making needs to come from a place of understanding.

It’s a fairly straightforward path when discussing medicine: you cannot operate on someone, or force them to take medication, or any other number of things without their permission to do so, and that their permission is based on knowing what’s going on.

I cannot stress how important it is to transpose this idea onto technology. This is an especially valuable concept when looking at the myriad ways we interact with technology, and especially computing technology, without even being given the opportunity to consent, whether or not we come from a place of autonomy.

At the airport recently, I heard that a flight was boarding with facial recognition technology. I remembered reading an article over the summer about how hard it is to opt-out. It gave me pause. I was running late for my connection and worried that I would be put in a situation where I would have to choose between the opt-out process and missing my flight. I come from a place of greater understanding than the average passenger (I assume) when it comes to facial recognition technology, but I don’t know enough about its implementation in airports to feel as though I could consent. Many people approach this from a place even with much less understanding than I have.

From my perspective, there are two sides to understanding and consent: the technology itself and the way gathered data is being used. I’m going to save those for a future blog post, but I’ll link back to this one, and edit this to link forward to them.