Alienation and ICT: How Useful is the Classical Concept of Alienation in Analyzing Problems of ICT

Mike Healy and N. Ben Fairweather


This paper examines the value of using the concept of alienation in studying the ethical and societal implications of information communications technology (ICT). Recent contributions include topics such as work alienation among women IT workers (Adya 2008), business investment decisions (Abdulla and Kozar,2007), urban alienation (Foth, 2005), international ecommerce (Sinkovics et al 2007), the impact of technology job structure and redundancy (Vickers and Parris, 2007), education (Akudolu, 2006, Moule 2003, Rovai and Wighting, 2005), the alleviation of poverty (Slater and Tacchi 2004) and business ethics (Smith et al 2004). However, in much of the literature, alienation is not fully described and seems to serve as shorthand for some vague form of undefined dissatisfaction. This paper seeks to address this weakness by reviewing a number of key texts associated with alienation including Marx, Seeman and Mann. (Marx 1970; Seeman 1959, 1983; Mann 2001)

The classic Marxist theory of alienation, an attempt to define and reveal man’s relationship to the wider social order, is outlined and covers four distinct expressions of alienation: estrangement from the products of our labour; alienation from ourselves; alienation from our species being; and alienation from others. The work of Seeman with its focus on powerlessness, meaninglessness, anomie, isolation, and self-estrangement is discussed. More recently Mann has sought to use the theory of alienation, to developed an explanation for and a possible solution to the lack of active engagement by learners in higher education, Her work is also covered here and in particular Mann’s description of possible conditions that create states of alienation: the influence of external forces, notably the drive for utility in learning; the existence of previously determined entrenched roles; the denial/repression of student creativity; and the loss of ownership over the learning process.

After considering the theoretical underpinnings of alienation, the paper develops the argument by examining how the concept can be applied to the use of ICT in a range of scenarios such as ICT training, ICT and education, and ICT in work and ethics. This section of the paper proceeds with a discussion of the work of Phelps et al (2005) whose research based on complexity theory emphasizes the need to foreground the requirements of end-users allowing them to feel they have the power to determine the pace, direction, purpose and product of their learning activity. Such an approach, argues Phelps et al, will facilitate and encourage self-directed learning that is much needed in an ICT based society. The discussion also embraces an interesting study of the use of web blogs in a web-based distance learning environment, which sought to examine the impact of blogs on student feelings of isolation, alienation and frustration (Dickey 2004). Reference is also made to a recurring theme in much of the literature which is concerned with the non-take up of ICT and relates to the need for end-users to be more intimately involved with initial planning and implementation of ICT systems to alleviate feelings of alienation. The example provided within the paper concerns the use of ICT in urban planning and lack of involvement of planners in the development of large-scale ICT projects directed to the creation of so-called digital cities. (Aurigu 2006)

Alienation and work also forms part of the discussion since it appears as a prominent theme in the literature. Kohn (1976) examined the relationship between occupational structure and alienation; a theme that has been echoed more recently by DeHart-Davis and Pandey (2005) in their research into rules, regulations and procedures and public employees. Ferguson and Lavalette (2004) have also used theories of alienation to argue for a refocusing of what they term “emancipatory social work” (page 297). Banai and Reisek (2007) have employed concepts of alienation to look at supportive leadership and job characteristics and DiPietro and Pizam (2008) examined causes of alienation amongst American fast food workers. The paper refers to recent research on the use ICT in the financial services and discusses alienation issues arising from the impact of technology in the current economic crisis. Work of this nature provides a rich source of information and perspectives when considering the use of ICT at work. (Wolf 2007; Jennings 2009; Healy and Fairweather 2009)

This section of the paper concludes by looking at the relationship between ICT, ethics and alienation. Here the paper notes that while in other fields of study such as medicine, management theory, education and consumer research, there is a body of knowledge that seeks to combine ethical concepts and theories of alienation, this has been notably missing within the field of ICT ethics. There are exceptions such as research focused on showing how the transformation of personal data by information systems and which is subsequently re-presented to an external audience, can be described as a process that creates alienation Floridi (1999). However, the paper concludes that the work such as that of Floridi is very much the exception. A further conclusion is that the concept of alienation, rather than being merely a shorthand term for general dissatisfaction, offers a robust tool for the examination of how non-technical factors adversely impact on the use of ICT.