Engaging with ethics in Internet of Things: Imaginaries in the social milieu of technology developers

Journal: Big Data & Society

Funda Ustek-Spilda, Alison Powell, Selena Nemorin
Big Data & Society 6(2), https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951719879468. First published Oct 3, 2019.
Keywords: Internet of Things, social milieu, ethics, virtue ethics, responsible technology

Discussions about ethics of Big Data often focus on the ethics of data processing – ‘generation, recording, curation, processing, dissemination, sharing and use’ of algorithms (including machine learning and artificial intelligence) as well as corresponding practices such as programming, hacking and coding (Floridi and Taddeo, 2016: 1). Data-based systems, however, do not come from nowhere. In this article, we attempt to shift the focus of ethical discussion from the context of data processing to the contexts of data production. We attend to the ethical qualities of the social milieu in which data-intensive technologies get to be produced and the practical reasoning people in this social milieu undertake in their day-to-day encounters with technology development.

Our analysis is based on our ongoing work as part of a research project titled VIRT-EU: Values and Ethics for Responsible Innovation in EUrope. As part of our research, we have conducted multi-site ethnographic fieldwork with developers, designers and entrepreneurs as part of the IoT startup ecosystem in Europe. Between 2016 and 2018, we followed industry meetups, hardware and software showcases, workshops and industry conferences and conducted in person interviews and held co-design workshops; amounting to more than 100 unique fieldwork visits. We also analysed 10 years of data from the records of the IoT meetups in Europe. In conducting our analysis, we sought answers to the following two questions: How do developers in start-ups and small companies practice ethical decision-making? What are the technological, business and social contexts that influence these decisions?

Photo by Kipras Streimikis on Unsplash


Our findings indicated that the social milieu of technology development, being strongly focused on innovation, attracting funding, corporate reputation and market share created challenges for explicit engagement with ethics. This, we argued, holds a major constraint to systemic change in the field. Many people considered ethics as important as a topic, but not urgent in their list of things to-do. From our analysis, we developed three action positions to illustrate points of engagement with ethical and moral concerns. These positions are of course not exhaustive of the positions available to those in these spaces, but include the most significant directions of engagements we observed in our fieldwork. These positions are the Disengaged; the Pragmatist and the Idealist. Within the Disengaged position, many IoT developers remained ambivalent about the ‘use’ of ethical reflection and discussion beyond compliance with existing regulations; concentrating their attention more on issues relating to business and financial stability. To illustrate, within the nearly 90 meetups held by IoT London Meetup Group held in the last ten years, our analysis indicated that ethics as a topic featured only once, while GDPR emerged as a topic that was mentioned often. The Pragmatist position places ethical concerns squarely in relation to business interests but is not necessarily subsumed by them. We found that ethics was referred to in its relation to new and emerging market opportunities and allowing businesses to limit financial liability. An Idealist position on the other hand, advocated action on values and principles by incorporating them directly into business ventures and social networks. A series of IoT manifestos advanced some of these perspectives (Fritsch et al., 2018) and some developers we interviewed also positioned themselves and the trajectories of their ventures along these lines. A strong identification with ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ and separation of individual and collective subjectivities in relation to ethical concerns as well as an active engagement with the responsibility for producing ethical technologies (and futures) were shared among these individuals.

Our analysis demonstrates that the extent to which individual subjectivity can influence engaging in ethical action may depend on the organisational environment technology developers are embedded in. This means that constraints (financial, structural, social or other) are not merely external things to be overcome for ethical action to take place, but rather intrinsic to the social milieu technology developers are part of. This goes some way to explain why on the one hand we are seeing a plethora of new ventures subscribing to emerging fields such as ‘technology for social good’ or ‘business with purpose’ whilst on the other hand technology products continue to violate privacy, intensify bias and entrench social power. Put simply, it is not simply that technology developers do not have ‘virtuous intentions’ but that the social milieu they are part of structures their space for action.


This blog piece was originally published on the Big Data & Society Journal blog on 04 October 2019. We thank the BD&S Journal for allowing us to republish it on our website.


Floridi L and Taddeo M (2016) What is data ethics? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 374(2083): 20160360.

Fritsch E, Shklovski I and Douglas-Jones R (2018) Calling for a revolution: An analysis of IoT manifestos. In: Proceedings of the 2018 CHI conference on human factors in computing systems, Montreal, QC, Canada, 21–26 April 2018, p.302. New York: ACM Press.