Sociotechnical Versus Socioethical

The feeling was deeply palpable and affecting both my professional life and leading to arguments at home.

It was a constant struggle in my mind and it kept me awake for long periods of time.In that regard nothing has changed as far as this dilemma, this deep seated ethic position that unduly affects my sleep.

I find myself thinking as to how much life has changed as a result of one simple shift from examining how I felt about what I was living, not simply living without critical inquiry.

A geek suddenly looking into his VR mask and thinking "...what the hell are you doing? Can't you see this is taking you away from the very people you set out to protect?"

On the one hand there I was a director amongst three others pursuing profit from re-selling head worn cameras to a wide range of customers. We also had engineering aspirations and we were invested in many different experimental projects as diverse as policing, military, education and pornographers.

“… On the other hand I was avidly reading article after article that pitched 'social-technical' with that of 'socio-ethical', coming to a realisation that one did not mutually flow with the other, that key discords exist. Even the spelling of both terms gave rise to difference in the literature review with a dearth or lack of results for socio-ethical. How could there be such little written in this area? It is still mind boggling for me that there is such a lack of literature that equates technology, instinct, society and ethics as core to a foundation for inquiry.”

I found many articles written by Michael & Michael in the space and this frustrated me. Surely there was more that others had said on the ethical implications of technology on society? Was this my area to be writing in at all? What qualifies me to have any say at all in that space? Perhaps this is why I was incredibly confused to begin with as not only had my research question changed but so had my life.

It was directly affecting my life and it was uncomfortable and outright unexpected. It happened over a couple of years and it crept forward in all I did till it was glaringly evident I was living a lie.

Everything was arse about now. The very constitution which I'd lived as a life mission was now null but not void. The PhD I think started the moment I began questioning where I was heading with this head worn computing fascination and indeed it gave rise to many moments of paradox.

The questioning gave rise to many, many short written papers and I look at these now and cringe at how basic they are.In an everyday context I found myself rejecting the very  premise or basis for friendships with others and found myself asking question after question of others till they gave up and left.

Even drinking at the pub became a chore, dinners were boring as they didn't centre on my research topic and I'd have friends just not returning calls or even making any. The myopia set in and never left, or so I thought. I set about writing and reading in earnest thinking that the answer to it all would appear soon.

I also learned quickly that there are "camps" in an academe quarter where individuals were forgoing their own ethics to pull in some extra cash by turning blind eye to the affects of a technology on an individual or a community. Some would argue they are morally just in there feeding and supporting family and friends whilst others were of the opinion that whilst it suits a mass it forgoes an individuals ethical position.

Their intuition tells them it is wrong because of its effects short or long term on others, yet they draw down on the "greater moral good" or the mantra that it "protects the community for their own good".

In that regard an ethical position as being more of a individuals responsibility and the moral imperative being that of what coalesces and changes by the varied nature of human connection. An ethical position informed by virtues but not grounded in the isms that choked a child by consumption.

Expediency, profit and social inclusion all factors forcing an individual to conform, to become the same capitalist pig as their neighbour one shopping trip after another. Never once questioning how much AV gas they consume getting to their island hideaway that could well have been replicated in their local hotel bar.

It was as I saw it a set of principles that we all find ourself subject to breaking and flagrantly deluding ourselves with. Things as seemingly benign as where does that bottle water come from and why on earth are we sending millions of tonnes of water from one side of the earth to the other when it expands billions of tonnes of carbon creating resources. Our ethical position on anything must be mediated with a certain reality and nothing is more delusional than substantiating nirvana in a virtual reality thinking that by masking our the world we avoided resource spend.

As a result of all of this I argued with my fellow directors on a fateful trip through the causeway of the Swan River into the Fremantle Harbour riding the transom of a gigantic cruiser, the wake like an erect virile rooster tail. I raised my concerns that perhaps we would be better off examining the implications of the roll out of an advanced location enabled head worn camera technology with due concern for society more generally before rushing into more profit lead, more expedient, more invasive ventures mode. 

I was greeted with dumb looks of "...what the fuck are you talking about." In fact, I was asked the question " that supervisor or yours feeding you this bullshit Alex?"

As it is for me I understand ethics and morals as completely differing concepts and worthy of deep introspection, in this case so much so I ended up signalling after a long conversation with a fellow director that as far as I was concerned that my PhD research was more important than the glee of making a greater percentile cut on sales.

That sealed the fate of the company and despite a few iterations into a data mining service provision the company folded soon after.

Truth be known, it was deeper than that. 

I had a personal and seperate ethical position gained I attribute to arguing my case with a range of international ethics focussed professionals and in the listening in that came of transcribing interview after interview, hearing the same answers appear and finding a pattern in the replies.

For me socio-ethical means deeply feeling and instinctually identifying factors that might in some way affect an individual, a community or society at large. It makes better sense when we think of making a decision that involves defending our personal position over that of a moral concourse. Even though a mass of moral servitude pervades I feel we need to speak our mind and in doing so realise we may be treated as the outsider, alone. 

As Satre would say, there is no hell, rather hell is other people.

Well, hell became other people and it seemed there for a number of years that I was on my own. Even my own family turned on me.

So what does a socio-ethical position on anything derive from? Does it manifest itself in some way physiologically?

I see it as an instinctual feeling. 

A gut feel and upsetting, maybe not immediately apparent. It is an "unsettling" and it doesn't necessarily have a reference in those around us

That's what I have experienced. 

Switching my research question from socio-technical inquiry to that of socio-ethical was not a result of someone else saying I needed to do so. The switch I found myself professionally aligned with in a business sense. I knew and had avid conversations with my supervisor that it had to be socio-ethical given what I'd read of socio-technical considerations for an array of topics.

I just know I actually felt I needed to make the change from a deep set position, that facilitating technical diversity, expediency and continuity wasn't enough to warrant giving over to appease others when I knew not enough debate or inquiry had been invested in the development.

An example of this is when I discovered that keyframes on a device including date, time and geolocation were being loaded from a device each time the device was informed or an automated software update via the internet. The keyframes included photo, video and audio data and the manufacturer was retaining the data to analyse for marketing benefit. None of this was made apparent in any of the contractual or user guides for the product.

Whilst it was of benefit to the developer it was in direct breach of consumer privacy, against the laws of the jurisdictions it drew from but not from the country where t he manufacturing and reseller state of origin was situated.

The same can be said of our current regime of updates we allow to occur on our computers where large chunks of contiguous data chains are transmitted with little or no integral oversight by the data owner. How much of what we feed into these consortia daily, hourly, bit by byte is used against us never mind in a supposed way that assists us?

We are all now aware in this global state of insecurity that whilst the internet was the connection of a hive mind that we now have to endure a panopticon so insidious that the very act of breathing and thinking now serve as evidence to incarcerate many for the benefit of a few. In Australia we give over two years of all ISP data under mandatory data retention laws and yet somehow we have to trust that a government is there to serve its people and not simply itself?

It gave rise to the many, many events I presented at or assisted to convene that spoke of the perils of a surveillant state, moving to that of an Uberveillance.

True to form I fought till I cried tears with my ex-wife as to why I'd shifted from one literary footprint to another. That extended to long and rapid fire emails or phone conversations with my supervisor who advised me it was MY research question and needed to be thoroughly considered, that a researcher needs to be able to answer both domains.

I found myself digging into hundreds of articles and then one night it made sense. My supervisor said she was keen for me to help her build a community of practice using a simple website framework and a number of academics profiles.

I set about the task only to discover that the 'academics' are actually world leaders in topics as contentious as teaching ethics to robots. So the socio-ethical domain is actually awash with giants and long term sceptics, brilliant societal thinkers, philosophers, educators and many other hats. I had at least found my cohort or those to work away from.

I found myself instantly unpopular in chat rooms with fellow educational technologists as my position switched from mobile tech fanboy to questioning critic. On numerous occasions I discovered that even the most admired of those I had once held as mentors were reduced to blubbering apologists when drawn down on the ethics of their systems and upgrades dependent banter.

In essence, socio-ethical inquiry brings about change by virtue of its core value set. An ethical consideration means we collectively draw on our own individual experience and by connection find where it parallels, builds on or refutes the opinions of others. 


Added in 2016

Most important of all socio-ethical everything is grounded in country not culture. As Aboriginal Australians have taught me, the concept of intuitive direction, the decision to align comes from country.

That "liyan" as the Nyikina community of the Australia Kimberley state is what we might call in a western context as our intuition. That feeling and decision that brings ethics and instinct together grounded in country I think forms the constitution and argument for my PhD, a core understanding I haven't seen written to in a technological context.

I look forward to being corrected on that but I'm of the opinion that my argument is that technology is taking us away from ourself - that the digitisation of knowledge, that the homogenous effects of digital technologies means a profound loss of culture, of individuals losing their liyan and getting around in a walking sleep.

That there is a cultural and ethical genocide in place that is consuming our cultures and our kids. We are seeing a massive shift to a digital economy that is changing everything we consume, interact with and value. We must come to our senses and realise that we have been hoodwinked into accepting convenience over that of true core value, that an inevitable state of embedded technologies inside humans out of their own personal control that will end the anthropocene era.

It is also possible as transhumanists will argue that we have already made that crossover and that as cyborgs a socio-ethical consideration for the technologies we avidly replace our communications with is no longer valid, mute. I will argue in this PhD that a Singularity is nothing more than a dystopia, a science fiction so evil and vile it compares with the very controls and depravities that the Christian Judaic faith has often been accused of. A socio-ethical consideration means that I need to write about the full loop of life I have found myself in and bring to the world what I have learned as a result.

Qualitative, ephemeral, contestable, my evidence is informed by a strong interviews and an even stronger base of analyse. What I have said doesn't matter but perhaps in reflection it does show the dependency I had for an answer  from those I sought to interview and not with those who challenged even the core tools I used to interview with.

In summary socio-technical doesn't cut it. 

There is far deeper and more important concerns than profit and expediency. Far more important agendas than wiping our development feet clean on the faces of others as they struggle to eat, sleep and make good of their life that coexists with an sustainable protection of environment. At stake here is the very engineering of humanity down to a simple and collective feeling as we face down a bunch of soulless and evil machinery.

Sure it was created by humanity but what I will argue in the thesis is that we have time to change direction, to listen into country and to ensure we coexist alongside our engineering brilliance, not have that technology pervade and control our biological milieu.