Taking a Line for a Walk: From Wiener to Floridi and thence to Surveillance in the Workplace

Karen Mather


In his 2001 book “Being Good” the philosopher Simon Blackburn reproduces a drawing by the Swiss painter, Paul Klee, to illustrate a point that he is making about identity. Paul Klee is notable for having explained that his artistic method was that of “taking a line for a walk”. This reference to the technique of beginning with an abstraction and gradually working up to the material depiction of an idea, is here borrowed as an model for this paper on Information Ethics.

Looking back to the keynote paper at ETHICOMP 2004, given by Terryl Bynum, one learns of the birth in the middle of the last century of the current debate about Information Ethics. Other works of Bynum trace the line of thought from Norbert Wiener’s concern that automation would require new and more sophisticated ethical sensitivities, via Maner’s warning about the lack of computer ethics “policies”, to Gorniak-Kocikowska’s assertion that modern developments in Information Technology necessitate the uncovering of new, globally-relevant principles to replace the Euro-centric ethics of former times.

Since the late 1990s Luciano Floridi and colleagues have taken up the challenge and have proposed a theory of Information Ethics that is presently stretching current understanding and expanding the Computer Ethics body of knowledge in the finest tradition of vigorous discussion around controversial ideas.

This paper acknowledges the contrary positions taken by other recent writers on the subject of Information Ethics. One such is Mathieson, who suggests that it might be more a question of access to information as a Rawlsian primary good, rather than the nature of information itself, that is at the heart of Information Ethics. Also the purport of a recent careful and detailed critique by Himma is considered, particularly in terms of its rejection of Object Oriented theory as a means of elucidating or validating the Floridi concept of information objects.

Whilst according due respect to opposing views, the paper nonetheless follows the Floridi line, and explores the possibility of using the Floridi scheme of Information Ethics as a macroethic, that is as a high-level concept that could be called upon in constructing solutions to issues at the lower-level of applied computer ethics. The example used for this exploration is that of the issue of electronic workplace surveillance, where information technology is making it possible for employers to keep a very close watch on their employees – a situation that frequently invites examination from an ethical point of view.

Regarding workplace surveillance, and in the spirit of the Ethicomp 2005 conference entitled ‘Looking Back to the Future”, this paper looks back to the work of Norbert Wiener in the 1940s and 1950s, forward to the theorists who have followed in his footsteps, and on to the authors of emerging ideas and the issues they foreshadow in newly published scholarly work.

In this regard, January 2005 has already seen the publication of a book, edited by John Weckert, containing work by leading thinkers in the field of computer ethics, on the topic of electronic workplace surveillance. Here the fundamental issue can be traced back to Wiener – one of the bedrock principles that Bynum attributes to Norbert Wiener is that of “no unnecessary infringement of freedom”. Modern developments suggest that Wiener would be seriously discomforted by the status quo. For instance, in the recent popular press, the Los Angeles Times of 27 December 2004, there is an article by David Colker that seems to sum up the situation: “Go Ahead, Just Try to Disappear”.

Questions related to the ethics of workplace surveillance fall under many headings including privacy, trust and autonomy, informed consent, fairness, universal human rights and legal issues. Arguments for the practice consider the rights and responsibilities of employers in relation to their stakeholders, who, of course, include the people working for the organization. Arguments against the practice discuss such matters as the rights of the individual, psychological suffering, and the imbalance of power between employees and employers.

The question this paper broaches is whether it is possible to make use of the new theory of Information Ethics as a macroethic and through it to gain different insights into the ethical problems associated with electronic surveillance in the workplace as currently identified in the literature of computer ethics.