Can Nontechnicians Code? The Relevance of Communities for Ethics-Oriented Initiatives

Internet of Things (IoT) is a highly contested ethical arena. While some see connected devices as a source of empowerment, recent reports associate them with domestic abuse and home surveillance. So far, some of the proposals to address these ethical concerns highlight the fundamental role that designersand developers can play in achieving a more reflexive ecosystem. Two examples of this approach are calls to foster more and better codes of conduct and to strengthen ethics in the curricula of STEM programmes.

In this blogpost I shine a light on an alternative path, suggesting that policies, research projects, ethical tools and other initiatives focusing on ethics would benefit from paying more attention to the collective spaces where designers and programmers participate. Looking at my engagement with a hacker community and an IoT meetup based in London, I argue that communities help actors to broaden their ethical concerns by facilitating their interaction with people from different backgrounds. Although this statement sounds obvious, in this post I will provide a grounded example of how the dynamic operates in practice. I hope to inspire more people to get involved and support these types of communities.

Certainly, what I am saying here is not new. Moral philosophers from different currents agree with the idea that ethics is a collective endeavour[1]. As Hannah Arendt argues, morality “finds itself always and primarily, even if I am quite alone in making up my mind, in an anticipated communication with others” (2006, p. 217). A similar claim has been made by indigenous groups and religious spiritualities. For example, buddhism employs the idea of the nonselfto refute the assumption that we are individual units in essence (Kongtrul, 2006). In this post, I reflect on some ways in which these formulations can be put to work in the IoT.

Why Communities? Tackling Isolation in Programming

The ideas I am discussing here started to take shape in a visit we had to a hacker community as part of our ethnographic work for Virt-EU[2]. In this visit, we met John, a developer who ran weekly programming workshops. He told us that he decided to start them as a result of his own isolated experience as a developer. Interestingly, he did not think he was incorporating any ‘ethical’ component in these workshops. He said, he just wanted to provide beginner programmers a nice and warm environment where they could help each other and learn collectively.

In the beginning, I felt John was missing an opportunity. His workshops could be employed to introduce some ethical discussions or to spread free software or other types of value-led technologies. However, after a while, I realised that his workshops could also be understood as an ethical argument in themselves. I started to interpret John’s initiative as an argument according to which, in addition to discussions of the values guiding the IoT, we need to pay attention to theconditions under which technical actors do their work. Indeed, the lack of human proximity that he perceived can have relevant ethical reverberations. As some philosophers argue (Benhabib, 1992; Habermas, 2015), moral reasoning usually takes place through communication, and since what is considered ‘good’ is collectively defined, the only moral assessment we can undertake is on whether the process was guided by mutual understanding and solidarity. John’s discomfort made me think that programming in isolation might not provide the best social infrastructure to conduct this type of ethical deliberation.

It is important to mention that John’s initiative is not an exemption when it comes to technical communities. In recent history, designers and programmers have shown awareness of the necessity of building more community-oriented spaces not only online but also offline. Hackers are a great example. Even though they are usually associated with an inclination towards individuality and autonomy, in practice they tend to negotiate these values with more communitarian mechanisms of organisation. For Gabriella Coleman, hacker conferences are instances when the “social bonds between participants are made manifest, and thus felt acutely” (2010, p. 50). In contrast to hackers, however, people involved in IoT development share a more varied range of sensitivities, such as makers and entrepreneurial ethics. Also, the increasingly popular co-working spaces can provide them with the opportunity to meet people facing similar challenges. The obvious question, then, is what type of social infrastructure might be appropriate for groups focusing on the design and development of IoT projects.

London IoT Meetups and the value of ‘Amateur’ Communities

As part of our ethnographic work at Virt-EU, we have visited conferences, co-working spaces and companies, among other social IoT spaces. So far one of our deepest engagements have been with the Internet of Things London (IoT Londonhereafter), a meetup run by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino that started seven years ago and which I have been attending for more than a year. This group is the most popular one in Europe in the Meetup platform, with more than 13,000 members.

Looking at IoT London brings to the surface the ethics of putting together people from different backgrounds to discuss a specific topic. As a developer once told me, one of the main characteristics of this group is it targets ‘amateurs’. Being called ‘amateur’ might be offensive for some, but for me it is precisely this ‘amateurism’ that illustrates one of the main strengths of the initiative. Compared to similar communities in the same city, participants of IoT London come from quite a diverse range of backgrounds[3], such as programming, design, law, commercial development and academia. As I discuss below, this setup can enrich the process of ethical deliberation.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to present some of the findings of our project in one of these meetups. As a PhD researcher used to write essays addressing a very specific audience, one of the main challenges I had was to introduce our insights in a way that the audience could make sense of it. Why would an engineer interested in mechanical joints or pollution sensors care about the values shared by different IoT communities? Certainly, it is easier to think of why should he/she care, but this normative position does not ensure that the person is going to really engage with your arguments. The point I want to make here is that the diversity of backgrounds requires presenters to make adjustments of their speech.

These ‘adjustments’ do not only encompass avoiding technical jargon but also an active transformation of the form and the content.

In the introduction, I referred to Arendt’s concept of anticipation, an idea that comes to the surface again. In a way, the presentations delivered in IoT London are the product of a negotiation between the speakers’ thoughts and their anticipation of the interpretation that the rest of participants will do on it. In the words of Swierstpra and Rip (2007), we are challenged to mentally transit from a cold morality of ‘unproblematic acceptance’ to a hot ethics of ‘explicitness and controversy’. In the sessions of IoT London there is also a moment of Q&As after each talk, but if Arendt is right then the dialogues that is established at this stage have been already partially ‘cooked’ by the anticipations made by the actors.

The anticipations required to address communities with diverse backgrounds can help participants to cultivate what Aristotle calls practical wisdom. For him, the search for the right decision does not only has to do with finding ‘scientific’ truths but also with taking into consideration the broader context in which these decisions are taken. Among other elements, practical wisdom implies taking into consideration not only one’s but also other people’s perspectives. Speaking in IoT London makes it necessary to draw on this virtue in order to make sense to the whole of the community. This is not only true for those working in academia, and I guess that the people who presented previously that evening on wireless network platforms and developing an animal care startup had to go through a very similar process.

Technicians and Nontechnicians Altogether

Since their backgrounds are so varied, speakers in IoT London have touched upon a broad range of topics. Certainly, the majority of presentations are ‘technical’ (sensor networks, programming languages and so on), but there are also ‘softer’ ones addressing themes such as the implications of Brexit for the IoT or the different regimes of intellectual property. I think it is precisely this encounter between ‘technical’ and ‘nontechnical’ actors — its amateurism — what makes IoT London a fruitful platform for advancing collective ethical deliberation.

Some might argue that I am being naive since, in the end, what makes a decision technicalis precisely the fact that it is informed by neutral and objective criteria. According to this understanding, discussions on ethics are relevant, but in practice programmers conduct their work based on a rational assessment of the available options. However, ethnographic research and science and technology studies depict a different dynamic. For example, Alison Powell(2018) argues that the distinction between moral and technical argumentsis not always clear-cut. Her study of the discussions surrounding the Openmoko project illustrates that programmers and designers draw on an operational pragmatics that entangles ethical and technical justifications to define what qualifies as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ technological development. In sum, communities such as the IoT London can provide nontechnicians the opportunity to inform the ideas that technicians will later employ during the design and development of products and services.

Events like IoT London meetups provide a social infrastructure that facilitate this interchange between technical and nontechnical arguments. Looking at some of the first hacker conferences during the eighties, Fred Turner argued that focusing in technological conferences “allows us to acknowledge the roles nontechnicians have played in shaping our perceptions of life with digital technologies” (2006, pp.265–266). In Turner’s vocabulary, I argue that IoT London provides a platform for the articulation of different visions surrounding the IoT. In other words, a process like this one can significantly enrich ethical deliberation by broadening programmers and designers’ repertoire of moral considerations.

Conclusion

In this blog post, I explored one of the ways in which communities such as the IoT London can provide a social infrastructure to facilitate collective ethical deliberation, an advantage that might be especially helpful for programmers and designers working in isolation. Of course, there is still much work to do in technical communities to involve a broader range of participants, especially when it comes to less privileged groups in terms of gender, race and class. Also, here I have mainly discussed positive aspects of communities, but a more in-depth analysis might also want to take into consideration the power dynamics of exclusion and oppression that also form part of them. However, even in its current form spaces like IoT London provide a valuable platform for the exchange of perspectives between technical and non-technical actors.

Initiatives such as policies or ethical tools seeking to advance a more reflexive IoT ecosystem could have much more impact by acknowledging this social dimension of ethics. So far collective organisations have proved to be one of the main sources of ethical articulation and transformation. As a group in Colombiaaffirms, “the word and the action outside the spirit of the community are death” (as cited in Escobar, p.176). Initiatives overlooking this fundamental dimension of ethics will have a hard time seeking to produce impact.


[1]Due to space constraints, in this article I do not distinguish between social, collectiveand communitarianapproaches to ethics.

[2]I have changed the details in order to preserve the anonymity of the actors.

[3]I employ the word ‘diverse’ here in reference to the professional background of participants. Unfortunately, this diversity does not range to other backgrounds, such as gender, ethnicity and race.


This blogpost is written December 6, 2018 by Sebastian Lehuedé