Digital Society
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Digital Society

Library Student Team: Reflections on The Individual, Identity and Ethics and the Internet of Things topics.

This podcast is part of the UCIL Digital Society course from the University of Manchester running in 2021/22 semester 2. The story it relates to is hosted on Medium and concerns the The Individual, Identity and Ethics and the Internet of Things topics topics.

In this podcast the Library Student Team reflect on your comments so far.


Week 6 + 7: The Individual, identity and ethics + The Internet of Things

ST1: Hi everyone, I’m Sara from the Library Student Team

ST2: and my name is Salma, a member of the Library Student Team as well.

Our past weeks’ topics were ‘Individual, Identity and Ethics’ and ‘The Internet of Things’. We’ve considered questions around what it means to live in a digital world, who controls our personal data, and the complexities of offline and online ethics. We covered how, increasingly, more devices are working in interconnected frameworks and are able to communicate with each other forming the ‘Internet of Things’. We covered how this impacts our reliance on technology and is reflected in our relationship with it. We believe it is important to consider that there is no one size fits all technological change and that, perhaps, our future requires a diverse range of technology usage.

To reflect on technology, we polled you to ask whether you feel that the development of technology has had a net positive effect on your life. 80% of you said yes, 3% said no and 11% said maybe. The binary of having ‘offline’ and ‘online’ lives, in itself highlights how digitized our lives have become, especially following our time studying online or working remotely during the covid-19 pandemic. Does our online life call for ‘online ethics?.

We asked you in a poll if ‘you think that we can apply the same rules to our online lives as we do to our offline lives?’

This poll yielded interesting results, the responses were roughly split, with 46% of you agreeing that we can apply the same ethical rules, while 38% of you think that we can’t and 17% responded with unsure. In the field of study around ethics, there remains academic debates for both sides.

As we saw in previous modules, it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between our online and offline lives, especially with what could be seen as the fourth Industrial Revolution: The Internet of Things. The Internet of Things or IoT was described by TechTarget as being a ‘system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines’ having the ability of data transference with no ‘human-to-human’ or ‘human-to-computer interaction’. Techopedia added that it is like an ‘ambient intelligence’.

An excellent example of this is the smart home; a system of both sensing devices, such as thermometers and water meters, and acting devices, those that can change the settings. These devices can all be accessed through apps or voice assistants which allows users to interact with them digitally. We discussed the developments that led us into the IoT using Christopher Roser’s diagram on the four major revolutions since the 1700s. The main inventions that dramatically changed the historical landscape included the Spinning Jenny and the Rocket Locomotive that upscaled fabric production and manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution.

The development of the Internet around 1940–2010 allowed the widespread and ease of communication over distance. One machine that was theorised around 1945 but never came to fruition was Memex, developed by Vannevar Bush. We asked you about your thoughts on Memex and what piece of 2021 technology you think it’s closest to. Most of you mentioned how the machine was ‘to function as a digital library’ and was ‘more about saving data and not about creating data.’ A lot of you likened Memex to ‘a modern hard drive, memory stick or online application like Google Drive’. We also discussed ARPNET, which was the original version of the internet used for military purposes. This led to the important question surrounding what the future will hold after the current stage of the Internet Revolution? What moral and ethical dilemmas would we face?.

Even in the current era of the internet, new ethical challenges show up all the time. Walter Maner at Old Dominion University considered computer ethics to be the study of ethical issues that are ‘aggravated, transformed or created by computer technology’. We’ve prompted you to think on the issues that are ‘aggravated, transformed or created’ by the internet? Many of you mentioned the issue of fake news, scams and false information remarking that it is much harder to distinguish reliable sources from unreliable ones. This is particularly concerning with troll factories spreading disinformation at an alarming rate. Another interesting response remarked that the ‘Internet has made people’s time more and more fragmented, with people having shorter attention spans’ with a student suggesting that this may be because…

‘Content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more regularly’.

We looked at data visualisation of the internet from Statista and the 2020 every minute of the day image showing types of data produced every minute. There is an estimated 2.5 quintillion bytes of data produced daily. Some of the statistics that shocked us included the 41, 666, 666 messages shared on Whatsapp and the 500 hours of Youtube video content uploaded per minute. Evermore, we actively participate in the generation of this data and we seem to do this willingly. Our digital footprint lives on in a digital world. Records of our actions pose the issue of Data Security, which remains an ethically ambiguous question around the globe, with many cases that demand answers. We’ve asked you to think and comment about two of those cases, the Panama Papers and the Ashley Madison leak. The case of the Panama Papers was a 2016 leak of documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. We asked you if “Ramon Fonseca, the partner of Mossack Fonseca, was right to say his company’s information was stolen and this is the real crime?”

Many of you agreed that “in this situation leaking the documents was the lesser of two evils”, more ethical than allowing people to continue avoiding paying tax, which is another crime. In the case of Ashley Madison Leak, no illegal activities were involved, and yet there remained the question if when the data itself morally incriminates someone, is the data breach justified? We asked if you feel differently about the leak and why? Many of you mentioned that ‘the amount of people the issue affects changes how you feel about the ethics of the leak’, and that the difference between if something is ‘morally wrong or illegal’ is what justifies trespassing privacy rights. The Library Student Team also ponders the question of who has the right to access the data, and if it is based on intention or consequences.

When considering the future and how now more than ever we are making use of so-called smart devices, there will be a larger amount of data that we will be generating and perhaps have a lesser hold on what data we produce. Is this necessarily for the better or for worse? We discussed the uses of the IoT for smart homes and smart agriculture. For example, using an app and sensing devices, you can determine when the atmospheric, soil and other conditions are right to water plants automatically. We asked you to give examples of Internet-connected or sensor devices you find surprising. A lot of you mentioned ‘alarm system technology’ that can let household members know when the alarm has been set off. Something we found surprising was an example you gave about refrigerators as sensor devices. You mentioned how some high-tech fridges can ‘use sensors to monitor the temperature inside, cleanliness, contents of the fridge and even give you information about the weather outside or help you make your shopping list.’ Some of you raised really interesting points about ‘to what extent are you going to let a machine influence your life.’

This leads to an important point about the conflicts of interest with the IoT. As we automate more tasks and more devices join onto the cloud, monitoring and automating various aspects of our lives, there is a high likelihood that over 50% of jobs today will not exist tomorrow. We likened this to the 1962 cartoon The Jetsons, depicting a family embracing the predicted technologically-driven society of 100 years into the future. Our real society is now at that stage and we are becoming increasingly concerned about what jobs we will do and why. Tech entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa makes the argument that, with the coming revolution, we need to reconsider the concept of work. Why do we work? Is it necessary? How long should we work? With continuous debate around these questions, we can expect to form a society that might be very different to what we have now. We asked you about your thoughts on the IoT and employment. Some of you mentioned your concerns about data security as, with all devices being connected, ‘more of our private data could be gathered indirectly and follow us from workplace to workplace’ similar to ‘annoying google ads’ but more physically present in our lives. All of you mentioned how you believe the IoT will ‘change how we work; we might use a lot more voice commands, bots, automation’.

To conclude, we polled you whether you agree with the statement ‘’Depending on how and why it is used, the Internet of Things will either be a force for good or bad’. The majority of you, 81%, agreed with this statement. We think it is important to consider your own role in this debate and how the IoT will affect your personal and professional life. You have the power to determine how this will work in the future.

Thank you so much for engaging actively with these topics. We’ve covered the ethics of our online and offline identities, moral questions of personal data, and the Internet of Things. We talked about data and how we might use data in the future, how it might be helpful and some of its challenges. We learnt a lot from your insights and hope that our discussions today have been meaningful.

We hope you will enjoy the rest of the course.



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