Ethics of emerging technologies – discourse and reality

I am in Karlsruhe in Germany for a meeting of the ETICA project ( on whose advisory board I sit. One of the documents they have produced is a fascinating if scary analysis of discussions in the academic literature about the ethical issues associated with a range of ’emerging’ technologies (including affective computing, bio-electronics, robotics etc.).

It is interesting to see the extent to which the academic concerns echo those of popular science fiction – out-of-control  robots on the rampage, cyborgs, the division of humanity into an enhanced super-race and an underclass of serfs …. But generally I was struck by how individualistic the values are. Lots of concern about loss of personal autonomy and invasion of privacy but barely a mention of collective issues such as impacts on solidaristic or communitarian ties or social institutions like the family.

But of course individual and collective rights are interlinked in complex and often contradictory ways.  There’s a striking example of this in an article by Brett Caraway in the forthcoming issue of Work Organisation Labour and Globalisation. It’s a study of oDesk, an online marketplace for labour that has some resemblance to the hiring fairs they used to have in rural Britain before the industrial revolution. Freelance programmers, editors, translators and other members of the cybertariat from all over the world bid against each other for work which, once won, has to be carried out using proprietary oDesk software entailing the most invasive surveillance I have ever come across.

6 thoughts on “Ethics of emerging technologies – discourse and reality

  1. I work as a virtual research “provider” these days and have obtained lots of work from clients all over the world through freelance work marketplaces similar to oDesk, with many of the initial “gigs” developing into very successful long-term working relationships. The oDesk website specifies that there is no requirement to use their software: “Your actual work will be done with whatever tools you and your employer agree on, and you’ll handle communication methods the same way” ( This way of working is far less intrusive (and much more flexible) than most conventional employment situations, and offers tremendous opportunities to work on interesting projects and make a good income from home (or anywhere, really!)

  2. That’s very interesting. One of the points Brett makes in his article is that the company’s strategy is constantly shifting in response to changes in the market and in workers’ practices. I wonder what he has to say about this.

  3. Lynda raises a good point. My research was informed by the perspectives of oDesk providers (freelancers who provide labour) and many of them expressed similar sentiments. Providers often preferred oDesk to the more traditional factory or office workspace because of their ability to set their own hours, be with their families, etc. Still others found oDesk’s platform invasive and wholly inappropriate for the sanctity of the home. And while it is true that oDesk does not require providers to use their technology to perform jobs, that freedom is mitigated by a loss of guaranteed pay and oDesk arbitration in disputes between buyers and providers. As is usually the case, technological platforms for the creation and maintenance of human relationships defy easy conclusions. In fact, I just posted on the subject for my own students last month:
    In the end, I found that oDesk functioned as both a resource and a constraint in the lives of its community of users. After all, these technologies aren’t simply lines of code or packets of inanimate data. These are active relationships among living people which are conditioned–not determined– by a structured environment.

    • These sorts of contradictions always seem to arise if one looks at work through a broader lens than that of classic labour sociology. Ironically enough, I first met Lynda when she was working for the UK Government in what was then known as the ‘Employment Department’ (aka Ministry of Labour) and commissioned some research which I carried out on ‘teleworking in Britain’ – a project that carried out the first ever survey of employers on this topic in the UK as well as carrying out case studies and producing an ’employer’s guide to teleworking’. (I still have fond memories of this project – Lynda was a wonderful project manager!). Sarah Podro worked on it with me, and I can remember intensive discussions about this and other contradictions.
      The first survey of teleworkers I carried out was in 1981-2, for the Equal Opportunities Commission. One of the questions in the questionnaire was ‘What is the main advantage of working from home?” another was ‘What is the main disadvantage of working from home?’. One respondent filled in the same answer for both questions: ‘Being with the children all day’. There you have it in a nutshell. It’s not a question of cost-benefit analysis, in which you weigh up the disadvantages agains the advantages: the disadvantages ARE the advantages. Being a working parent is living out such contradictions.
      And being a creative worker involves living out even more contradictions (I have just written an article on this, to be published in a journal called Ephemera. It is called ‘Expression and expropriation: the dialectics of autonomy and control in creative work’. Pretentious, or what?)

      • Well Ursula you have certainly brought a degree of levity and complexity to the conversation my wife and I have been having over whether to become parents with that post! 🙂

      • Sorry for this late reply – and thank you Ursula for the kind comments! I also have very fond memories of the Teleworking in Britain project, less so of working in government compared with being a full time teleworker! I do wonder if the oDesk system might be atypical of this type of online work site – I have never actually sourced any work through oDesk but I find it quite bizarre to hear of the constraints they impose on providers. I’ve never experienced anything like this working through other sites such as (mainly) and I agree with your point about the advantages of teleworking also often being the disadvantages, Ursula, I guess this could also relate to the isolation factor, not to mention the financial insecurity (reverse side of coin – having the scope to work more and earn more). But the balance of advantages and disadvantages does of course shift over the course of the life cycle. Finding myself single again and with a child almost grown up, I relish not being tied to a “permanent” job and being able to move between two homes on opposite sides of the world, not to mention all the other possibilities of travel and adventure!

        By the way, congratulations on a great blog site, I must remember to visit more often!

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