Trolleys, Theatres, and Smartphones

by | Apr 1, 2020 | ICT4D |

Mental models and thought experiments help us think through complex issues and potential consequences. There is the classic trolley problem in ethics which goes something like:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?

More recently, within the public health discussion I’ve come across a variation. “Shouting fire in a theatre – without exits“. The theatre is packed and a play is being performed. However the theatre is burning, engulfed. in flames, but there are no exits. No way to escape. Do you shout ‘FIRE’ inside the theatre or not?

Neither of these have easy answers. And there are no ‘right’ answers. The discussion, debates around these thought experiments help us tease out our perspectives, priorities, values, and yes, even our biases.

To bring this home to COVID – if our digital work focuses only on smartphones (apps) then it says something about our priorities and who we deem important (and who are not). The world’s most vulnerable tend not to have a smartphone or even a phone…

Photo by Vlah Dumitru


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