I am in Karlsruhe in Germany for a meeting of the ETICA project (www.etica-project.eu) 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.