In this blog, Dr. Emre Kazim comments on a recent report into the ethical opinions and concerns of tech workers (‘technologists’).

The recent Doteveryone report “People, Power and Technology: The Tech Workers’ View” (May 2019), is, to my knowledge, the first survey of the technologist’s ethical concerns. The survey does not delimit the specificities of various subjects, such as privacy or surveillance, rather it probes border questions of what can be referred to as ‘ethical consciousness’. We can think of someone as ethically conscious if they have a concern that is motivated by a moral compass, rather than, say, a concern of economics (pay and profit), or legality (responsibility and culpability). The legal dimension is particularly germane, as the report notes at various places, the imploration by technologists for a clear regulative framework. As I read the report, this is not because they are afraid of doing something illegal, rather the law is being taken as a practical instantiation of ethical deliberation and concern. This is important and compares to those who may have issues but do not frame them in terms of ethical consciousness. For example, the companies may want to ensure they are not sued, or sanctioned in some other way by the state, all by legal compliance, whereas, as the report suggests, there is a growing consciousness amongst working in ‘digital tech’ to ‘do the right thing’… whatever that may be.

Indeed, I take this as tension within the report, i.e. the motivation of the ethical concerns from the perspective of tech companies versus the ethical concerns of tech workers.

I believe this tension manifests itself in three ways:

  1. One of the headline-grabbing conclusions of the report is that the cost of a tech-worker leaving a company is £30,000. However, that is not a moral concern, rather it is a pragmatic-economic one! ‘It’s costly to be unethical’ may pragmatically force companies to consider ethics, however, such consideration is likely to be superficial.
  2. The report states that ‘balancing growth with responsibility (5)’ is important and then subsequently it identifies ‘responsibility’ as a business opportunity (11). Again, this is in the context of retaining talent or by the branding of ethical products. Of course, this seems to preclude that being ethical may not be as lucrative – surely the central motivation must be to ‘do the right thing’ follow what may. If, and it is likely to be the case, ethical is not as lucrative, that is ok!

  3. There is a continuous call for a clear legal framework; however, law/legislation (c.f. responsibility) is not necessarily the right first step. Indeed, legal codification is often the concrete manifestation of conversations, and conclusions, which have been resolved. The report identifies ethical concerns (a forlorn atmosphere among technologists!), and that may very well be a good thing. These vibrant and public conversations/debates are indicative of how conscious the community of technologists and the public at large is, with respect to the transformative nature of emerging digital tech.

It is said that a philosopher is a person with a problem; the ethical concern is a sign of consciousness, of being attentive and awake. It is important to speculate beyond the law (legislation will naturally result) and short-term economic consequences. The technologists – equipped with the knowledge and the wherewithal – are well placed to lead this conversation. As such the report is a vital window into this prescient and precocious community.