What happens to people’s values when digital technology takes over our jobs?
Values such as holistic personal treatment, fairness and individual assessment are key to social workers. These values, just like values in general, are not abstractions but are consolidated and exist by being practiced. But what happens to these values then if work is increasingly taken over by digital technology?
A sometimes overlooked aspect of what makes a democratic, open and pluralistic society possible is that there is also a pluralism of values in organisations. This may be particularly evident in professions such as healthcare and nursing, education or the judicial system. However, in professions that we associate more with the private sector, strong value foundations also exist. Organisations have, at least up until now, been value-pluralistic contexts. Although rationality and efficiency have been dominant values, other values have also existed side by side and have been able to provide important counterweights to just doing the most effective.
Democratic society is based on occupational categories embodying professional values and being able to mobilise a professional ethic that is intertwined with occupational knowledge. Knowledge and values are inseparable and come from a practical undertaking. This applies not least to occupational categories in the public sector – social workers, healthcare professionals, teachers, researchers, judges, prosecutors, etc. But it also applies to the same extent to engineers, economists, HR specialists, architects, management consultants and many others. It is important to realise that a social worker who performs their work does so against the backdrop of both personal experience but also against the backdrop of a specific discourse, location, regulatory framework and knowledge base that emphasises a qualitative understanding of events and rewards human interaction. Values such as holistic personal treatment, fairness and individual assessment are key to social workers. These values, just like values in general, are not abstractions but are consolidated and exist by being practiced.
What happens to these values then if work is increasingly taken over by digital technology? The short answer is that the materiality of digital technology profoundly undermines the opportunity to practice values other than rational efficiency. Allowing technology to take over more of what we do in our jobs leads to a value monism. Algorithms embody no values other than efficiency.
That technology is slowly transforming organisations from value-pluralistic contexts to value-monistic ones must be viewed in the light of the fact that political movements around the world are succeeding with policies that are anything but pluralistic.
When democracy and freedom really are under threat, that is when society in a broad sense must benefit from the plurality of values that makes it possible to stand up for democracy. If that is then no longer possible, if organisations are value-agnostic, then society is more vulnerable than we can imagine. It's not just that the technology has the potential to be used for surveillance, objectification, or other obscure purposes. The danger lies in the fact that we have abandoned the political terrain, by allowing technology to take over the practical performance of work, which creates what we call societies. Institutions, laws and norms won’t be able to save the democratic society that many of us claim to value unless people through practical actions give democratic values an expression.
The final question this reasoning brings up is then what can be done differently? Because it's important to clarify that nothing of what I've argued for above is based on a notion that technology inevitably leads to this. On the contrary, the remedy is to move away from a discourse about inevitability and towards taking responsibility for and consolidating professional values and knowledge bases by acting and doing this in organisation and work. It requires a story about the future where technology is a tool for achieving human goals. It is very much a political issue. But it is important to understand that work is especially important here and that we cannot talk about work anymore without talking about the role of technology in work. We must be open to realising that the consequences of digitalisation are not solely an issue of return on investment or growth. The consequences of digitalisation are ultimately a change in the conditions for a pluralistic society.