ECHOES OF ETHICS ACROSS EUROPE: An ethnography of ethical interventions into the Internet of Things

Ester Fritsch

Publikation: Bog / Antologi / Rapport / Ph.D.-afhandlingPh.d.-afhandling


This dissertation explores a recent proliferation of ethical interventions into the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies across Europe with a point of departure in empirical case studies. Recent scholarship points to a rise in explicit claims to ethics in the world of technological innovation in the Silicon Valley tech industry (Metcalf et al. 2019) and in European policymaking (Hasselbalch 2019). Still, as of yet, re-search investigating the ‘self-described ethical’ in the context of technological development has been sparse (Douglas-Jones et al., forthcoming). This dissertation contributes to such an absence by exploring explicit claims to ethics in the context of IoT creation in Europe through three different ethnographic points of entry: documents, technologies, and events. It posits ethics as phenomenon best understood through situated analysis that takes into consideration how ethical enactments of IoT entail different practices and takes varying forms as they ‘claim “real-estate” for ethics’ (Douglas-Jones 2017), and make IoT technologies and their stakes ethically knowable to us (Mol 2002).
Since the rise of ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) (Weiser 1991), visions of a world inhabited by technologies that melt seamlessly into the background of our everyday existence have flourished. With the rapid development of IoT connective devices these imaginaries have entered the world in practice. An increasing number of IoT technologies in the shape of ordinary things, such as teddy bears and lamps, now populate our worlds in invisible and yet pervasive ways. However, the promises of frictionless connectivity tied to IoT technologies continuously seem to crumble as IoT devices break down and bring different ethical dilemmas to the surface. While a lot of IoT creators show enthusiasm about the possibilities that IoT technologies engender, uncertainty and unease about the creations and worlds they bring into being simultaneously traverse European borders. Calls for attention towards ethics and IoT increasingly echo across Europe, as a diversity of bodies struggle to negotiate between the possibilities that IoT technologies offer and their ethical pitfalls. In this dissertation I argue that the form of initiatives ethically intervening into the development of IoT emergent technologies has implications for the problems they allow to emerge.
The contribution of this dissertation mainly sits at the intersection of the anthropology of ethics, the anthropology of technology and science and technology studies (STS), moving us into uncharted ethical waters empirically, methodologically and theoretically. It enters a dialogue with questions running through the recent turn towards ethics in anthropology (Faubion 2001; Laidlaw; 2014; 2017; Lambek 2010; Zigon 2007; Mattingly 2012; Fassin 2014), where an influence of Michel Foucault’s (1986 [1984]) thinking inspired by virtue ethics shines through in a focus on ethical self-cultivation through ordinary practices. In this dissertation however, I point to a limitation of this approach by illuminating how instantiations of the ethical as explicitly claimed in the context of IoT creation take distinct material forms and reach beyond the human.
The dissertation therefore also speaks to ongoing STS inspired research into the ethics of technological invention. In this field a growing body of scholars emphasize the materiality of ethical values in the creation of technologies along with questions about the delegation of ethics to more than humans (Akrich 1992; Latour 1992; Verbeek 2011; Jasanoff 2016; Jørgensen 2016; Bellacasa 2017). The analytical attention in this dissertation, however, is not directed towards how IoT connective devices embed ethical choices of their creators or whether these connected things have ethical agency. Through a comparative constellation of three ethical interventions into IoT, I argue that deliberate efforts to carve out a territory for ethics in IoT themselves entail numerous practices and have a material shape that matters for what can be ethically addressed.
My analysis of three different ethical enactments of IoT comparatively illuminate how ethics is always contextual and colored by different agendas. This calls for attention in a time where a linguistic inflation reveals that we live in ‘the age of ethics’ where different performances of the ethical can both reinforce or destabilize ‘established orders’ (Bellacasa 2017, 132). Claims to ethics in technological development are proliferating on a societal level and bring certain problems of IoT to the surface while delegating others to the background. Comparing different enactments of ethics and IoT holds a potential for critical analysis that also extends to other emergent technologies such as IoT, Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Virtual Reality (VR). Ethical interventions become prisms for understanding the ethics of IoT in new ways as they in a comparative constellation shed light on each other and the phenomenon critically and multidimensionally.
ForlagIT-Universitetet i København
Antal sider226
ISBN (Trykt)978-87-7949-062-8
StatusUdgivet - 2022


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