Technoethics and The Future of Work

Last year I visited Uber HQ in London . It was one of those really, really hot London summer days. As I arrived at the office I noticed a rather long line of men outside the building waiting in the blazing sun. As I went inside and upstairs to where the real Uber staff worked behind their lovely Apple Macs I couldn’t help wondering why there were no comfortable waiting facilities for the drivers. Thinking about it afterwards of course it was clear. The Uber staff are employees and the drivers well they are just commodities.

I don’t intend to go into the many many things that are wrong with Uber as a company (just search #ubered on Twitter for a second by second ribbon of stories) but it did get me thinking about a quote from Steven Hill’s book Raw Deal that:

“Technology has been granted a privileged and indulged place where the usual rules, laws and policies often are not applied”.

Are we so in love with the concept of disruption as a force for good that we cannot see what is happening right in front of us? While Airbnb is touted as the little man or woman making some extra money on the side the reality is that almost 80% of the revenues are generated by corporate landlords and multiple hosts.

And while we might be in love with the idea of disintermediation, cutting out the middle man and getting that super cheap room, what we are really dealing with there is disintermediation of the planning system. This is impacting both the availability of scarce rental housing in cities all over the world while also impacting on residential property owners who might reasonably expect some protection from their local authority planners who have zoned areas for residential and not tourist purposes.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not against anyone earning some money from short term room lets, I’m against the disingenuous description of what is actually going on and the use by companies like Airbnb and Uber of their selected users to create outcrys against any form of regulation. It speaks to a terrific quote by danah boyd speaking about the tech industry generally:

“They fight as though they are insurgents while they operate as though they are kings”.

Why are all the lessons we learned from almost thirty years of Corporate Social Responsibility policies being so easily forgotten? Does it sit comfortably with you as a user of Facebook that content moderation is outsourced? Not of course undertaken by real Facebook staff who benefited from what was then the highest IPO for a tech company on Wall Street but by workers in developing countries who get $1 dollar an hour for this horrific work?

It’s like there is a sewer 
channel and all of the 
mess/dirt/ waste/
of the world flow 
towards you 
and you have to clean it.” Facebook Moderator Phillipines

Is it right that over 500,000 million Asians disparagingly referred to as “Chinese Gold Farmers” are forced to sit in 12 hour shifts obsessively playing Massive Multiplayer Online Games to earn tokens to be traded offline receiving 30p an hour for their endeavours? When companies who trade these virtual goods are generating such huge profits? We need to redefine what is value and production what is profit and play if play is understood to be entered into freely for its own sake standing entirely apart from real life.

If we look again at our understanding of production and value do we need to redefine what we mean? Let’s compare how Marx defined production and see how it applies to something like - well Gmail.

Does a worker in a cotton factory produce only cotton? No. He produces capital. He produces values which serve anew to command his work and to create by means of it new values. ( Karl Marx 1891)

When you send an email are you only corresponding? No. You are producing capital. They derive value (data) which serve anew to command your activities and to create by means of it new values. 
(Emer Coleman 2016)

Every keystroke we make, every email we send and receive, makes us not just service users but in this context workers yet we do not benefit in any way that we understand we might as employees. Yet that’s exactly what we are, we are all shadow employees for Facebook, Google, Twitter and the myriad of other digital companies that we use. And let’s not go there with the “Sharing Economy”, I shared my pictures with Instagram they didn’t share their $1 billion loot.

This might not matter too much now but with the rise of robotics and automation and the hollowing out of middle class jobs that will surely follow how will we really feel about the yawning gap that is opening up between capital and labour? If in the US the decade between 2000 and 2010 was the first in US history that saw no job growth whatsoever is it any wonder that the likes of Donald Trump are beginning to resonate with those the economy has swept aside?

This is no longer about Engineering it’s about Social Engineering something we should surely be deeply concerned about because a key prerequisite for social engineering is having:

A body of reliable information about the society that is to be engineered and effective tools to carry out the engineering

Well how about this for a start for that required body of reliable information?

Concepts and topics discussed in email, 
as well as email attachments
The content of websites that users have visited
Demographic information — including 
income, sex, race, marital status
Geographic information
Psychographic information — 
personality type, values, attitudes, interests, 
and lifestyle interests
Previous searches users have made
Information about documents a user 
viewed and or edited by the users
Browsing activity
Previous purchases

Which we signed away in perpetuity to Google for the use of Gmail and for which we got in return a gigabyte of storage which even at that early stage only cost Google $2 per gigabyte per year. Have we no worries really about the current and future uses of our data - it’s time in my view to renegotiate the contract.

As Tom Steinberg writes so well in his Manifesto for Public Technology:

If we are going to limit and control the activities of digital companies then a new class of public servants are going to have to be trained up to do that work.

But it’s not just regulators and public officials who will need to completely change their approaches and skills what of our responsibilities in this regard? Do we as users have no consumer power? Or no responsibility to begin redefining what we mean by Corporate Social Responsibility in a digital age? Are we to remain silent as shadow employees of The Social Factory where there are no longer clear boundaries between work and play, where even as we play and use social media we are nought but worker drones?

We need to talk Techno Ethics and we need to act because our future is being designed around and to us. The new public servants are not those who work for government only but those who are willing to develop policy for the real and the virtual world. Society no longer stands apart from Cyber Society so where lies democracy in this brave new world and what are we going to do about it? I don’t know the answer but I know we can do better but only if we make our voices heard.