How to promote the dignity of work in the face of its hybridization in the digital economy

Pierpaolo Donati

1. The topic: the dignity of work in the face of the new technological era

1.1. The traditional concept

At first sight, the concept of “work dignity” is clear. Traditionally, it refers to the fact that a job is worthy if, and as long as, it fosters the virtues of the human person who performs it and makes the human person flourish. In this sense, the concept of dignity does not refer to an intrinsic property of a job as such, but to the conditions that a job must satisfy in allowing those who work to be human rather than alienate their humanness. In the traditional view, the dignity of work is therefore defined as depending on – and as an immediate reflection of – human dignity.[1]

The assumption is that, since all human beings have the same moral dignity, the jobs that they perform must also have equal dignity, regardless of the different rewards legitimately received by the workers according to their merits in a given labour market.

Concrete work “is worthy” (it has dignity) in so far as it helps humanize the human person, that is it is worthy if it respects the autonomy of the human person and facilitates the exercise of human virtues. In other words, to be “worthy”, work – with its qualities and properties – must be aimed at fulfilling the human person, and not vice versa (work is “for the human being” and not the human being “for work”). Herein lies its dignity.

So far, the concept of work dignity means a series of normative orientations: (i) people cannot be discriminated on the basis of the type of work they do, as if there were morally superior jobs and others of little or no moral value; (ii) it is not permissible to exploit either the job as such or the persons carrying out a job.

Let me quote an episode that speaks volumes about what the outlook of some people on human work is – and that is not good at all. After celebrating Worker’s Day on 1st May, Malta’s Socialist Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said that he prefers foreign workers to do menial jobs rather than Maltese workers. Clearly this was an insult to human dignity, and to the dignity of work (Asciak 2019). Muscat has since apologised – which is good – but the fact that he made the statement in the first place is an example of how persistent the idea is that jobs are stratified in their dignity according to different categories of human persons.

The concept of the dignity of work takes meaning and value only within a cultural context in which there is a certain meaning and value of the concept of human person. It excludes all cultures that do not have the same concept of ‘human person’. It involves a selective view of living beings and their rights (Sison, Ferrero and Guitián 2016). A certain worth or value is attributed to work in that it is done by a human person and not by a machine (think of a robot) or by other creatures (e.g. animals, such as the work done by elephants in certain regions of the world).[2]

This worth or value is associated with the capacity for reason and autonomy or “self-determination” through free choice. It also implies the need for consensus or mutual recognition among fellow human beings. Dignity demands respect. It refers to an exalted social rank, which has come to be attributed universally to all human beings (Dan-Cohen 2012: 5-6). In this cultural system, there is a relation between dignity conceived as the ground of rights and dignity conceived as the content of rights (Waldron 2009). To put it in the words of John Paul II:

«Christianity brought about a fundamental change of ideas in this field, taking the whole content of the Gospel message as its point of departure, especially the fact that the one who, while being God, became like us in all things devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter’s bench. This circumstance constitutes in itself the most eloquent “Gospel of work”, showing that the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person. The sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one. Such a concept practically does away with the very basis of the ancient differentiation of people into classes according to the kind of work done. This does not mean that, from the objective point of view, human work cannot and must not be rated and qualified in any way. It only means that the primary basis of the value of work is man himself, who is its subject. This leads immediately to a very important conclusion of an ethical nature: however true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it, in the first place work is “for man” and not man “for work”» (Laborem Exercens, § 6).

Thus far the traditional Christian personalism, which has been able to apply in a complementary and symmetrical way the concept of dignity both to work and to the worker, based on the fact that the tools of work were mastered by, and subjected to, the worker (homo faber).

From the sociological viewpoint, anyway, work dignity has a double face: (i) a subjective dimension (personal intentionality, responsibility, reflexivity, etc.) and (ii) an objective dimension, which refers to the fact that a job is worthy if it fosters the virtues of the human person who performs it and makes the human person flourish. The objective side presupposes that work as a social structure has an influence on human subjectivity. Better said: there is an inter-dependence, intertwining, interpenetration between the subjective and the objective dimensions of work, and therefore of dignity.

This process can be depicted using the social morphostasis/morphogenesis scheme (figure 1), in which we see how the objective and subjective dignity of work interact with each other over time. The scheme describes a process of hybridization that starts at a certain moment T1 when a robot is introduced in a social setting (in a school class, in a service for dependent persons, etc.). At time T1 the socio-cultural structure (which includes the robot) affects the agents in some way, but they are reflexive and begin to interact with each other and with the robot, continuing during the intermediate phase T2-T3 when human-robot interactions take place. At time T4, a new social division of labour emerges, together with a redefinition of the dignity of work. Therefore, at the end of each time cycle (T1-T4), we must ask ourselves whether human-machine interactions have increased or reduced the human dimensions of work and therefore its human dignity. I will come back to this scheme in the next Figure 4.

The novelty is given by the rupture of the close correlation between the dignity of the human person (as a subject) and the dignity of work (as an objective activity, supposed to be properly human) produced by the deep changes brought about by the fourth industrial revolution; in particular, by what is called ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Zuboff 2019).

As Jamie Morgan (2019) claims, “the future is being shaped now by the way the fourth industrial revolution is being positioned. Whilst no one has set out to argue for or defend technological determinism, anxiety combined with passivity and complacency are being produced in the context of a quasi-determinism. The contingent quantification of the future with regard to the potential for job displacement provides an influential source of authority for this position. A background narrative of ‘the future is coming, so you better get used to it’ is being disseminated. This favours a capitalism that may ‘deny work to the many’ perspective rather than a more fundamental rethink that encompasses change that may liberate the many from work. This, in turn, positions workers and responsibility for future employment, reducing the urgency of calls for wider societal preparation. Public understanding and policy are thus affected and along with them the future of work”.

1.2. The challenge of the digital technological era

The new digital technologies make things much more complicated to the extent that the tools of work, which were once passive, are now endowed with growing autonomy, intelligence and sensitivity with respect to the human factor, as it happens for AIs and robots. Hence the difficulties of (re)defining the dignity of work today. If my work no longer depends on my faculties, that is, the human person is no longer the measure of work, and therefore work cannot be evaluated anymore for its human qualities since it depends not so much on human will and intentionality but depends on mediations that technology has on human faculties, where is the dignity of work?

If the education of children is entrusted to a robot, where is the dignity of the teacher’s work? If the construction of a car is done entirely by a robot, where is the dignity of the work done by the worker? If care for the elderly is left to a robot, how is the dignity of the carer’s work configured?

The correlation between the dignity of work and that of the worker is now called into question on both sides: (i) on the work side, because the objective work activity is increasingly delegated to new technologies; (ii) on the worker side, due to the fact that the subjectivity of work is placed outside the production process, in the environment of the work system, and therefore there is no longer a connection guided by the human subject between objective and subjective aspects of the work;[3] following this line of historical development, we enter a world in which the distinction between human and non-human becomes reversible and therefore can be dissolved.

It is known that, in recent years, the actor-network-theory (ANT) has been widely spread according to which the person who works is not a person but a network of various entities, human, non-human and hybrid (Latour 2005). This statement seems to be in line with the Luhmannian perspective according to which communications are produced not by human beings but by the network of communications of which they are part (Rasche and Seidl 2017). But in fact the convergence is only partial, because for Luhmann the human/non-human distinction remains, while for the actor-network theory it is dissolved. Nevertheless Luhmann’s theory and ANT can be combined when studying how digitized enterprises can work (Noe and Alrøe 2006).

Who is the digital worker? If the digital society is one in which the distinction between the digital and the physical is exceeded, the digital worker no longer has to make two separate worlds compatible with each other (one “online” and another “offline”), but lives in one world, that of hyper-connected life. Which is the same thing as saying that s/he lives a hybridised life.

Today, the double crisis of the concept of the human person and of the meaning of work as a properly human activity is reflected in the problematic nature of the concept of ‘dignity’. To put it briefly, the concept of dignity no longer refers to a fixed entity (a fixed substance), but needs to be defined in a relational way. Work dignity becomes a relational matter, i.e. a job is worthy in relation to someone or something that remains to be defined and evaluated through the mediation of technology.

The question arises: what or whom is the dignity of work related to? Is work worth (more or less?) in relation to who and what? If instead of the human person we put a sentient and autonomous robot, is the same definition of dignity still valid?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to acknowledge that the changes introduced in the work by new digital technologies require an approach to work not only and not so much as functional performance, but above all and essentially as a social relationship (Donati 2001). The entry of new digital technologies means that the work social relationship is increasingly a mixture (hybridisation) of inter-human relationships and technological relations.

We have to ask ourselves: how do AIs/robots modify work? Do they increase or decrease its “dignity”? Can the digital economy include ethical principles that respect and promote human dignity in work and the dignity of work? Well, the answers must be given by observing and evaluating how new technologies modify the relationships between the workers’ persons and their work, both for employees and self-employed workers, and furthermore how new technologies change the relations between work activities and private life.

In this contribution, I intend to analyse how the changes of work brought about by the digital revolution modify workers’ social identities, relationships, and social organisations, and under what conditions this revolution can shape organisational forms that are able to promote, rather than alienate, humanity.

Some scholars predict that a deep antithesis will develop between “the society of machines” and “the society of men” (Bertolaso 2019: 147). In this contribution, I start from the idea that the two societies will mix more and more with each other. I call this process “the hybridisation of work and of the worker”.

According to Mike Walsh (2019),the greatest threat we face is not robots replacing us, but our reluctance to reinvent ourselves”. So, this is what is required of us today: reinventing ourselves, reinventing the human. But how?

Mike Walsh gives us an example. Take an architect. Today he draws with a pencil, tomorrow he will draw with the algorithm or robot. The algorithm does not take away the job, it just changes it. Well, what Walsh writes is true, but it remains to be specified how the work changes in its objective as well as subjective aspects.

I start from this example to observe that the algorithm and the robot are not exactly a more efficient substitute for the pencil, they are not passive instruments, but increasingly active and autonomous tools. This fact radically changes the relationship that human beings have with work. The algorithm changes the nature of work, and by changing the nature of work, it hybridises the human. We must then understand something about this hybridisation process.

2. The changing nature of work in the digital economy: the processes of hybridisation

2.1. The new technological context

The growing diffusion of digital technologies implies a growing hybridisation of the whole society, and in particular of work/labour.[4] Elsewhere I have given a detailed explanation of this process (Donati 2020). Here I limit myself to a few considerations.

The hybridisation of the society related to the digital revolution corresponds to the idea of a “society of Mind”. At the beginning of the computer age, Marvin Minsky (1986) proposed the construction of a model of (natural) human intelligence, built up step by step from the interactions of simple parts which are themselves mindless. In this model, the processes of interaction among elementary parts are supposed to constitute a ‘society of mind’, hence the title of his book. A core tenet is that “minds are what brains do”.

From my point of view, this theory is reductive and ontologically flat because it conflates mind and brain. Instead, according to the relational paradigm, I maintain that the mind is an emergent effect from the interactions between the brain and the factors that stimulate it from within and without the human body.

However, what interests me to highlight is the fact that, in my opinion, some decades later, Minsky’s theory of mind has become a sort of paradigm that today is applied, by similitude, to the society of humans. The model is no longer restricted to the human mind itself, but is now applied to the whole society understood in its sociological meaning, i.e., as the society of workers. Workers are now seen as simple parts (agents) that are, if not lacking in intelligence, at least strongly limited in their intelligence (compared to AI), so that only a special architecture of all the connections between workers and machines can generate an ‘intelligent society’. Such a smart society is held to have its own ‘economy of Mind’ (Wright 2000).

As a result, one can think of society (what was once called ‘human society’) as a connective tissue that does not consist of ‘analogical’ social relationships (interpersonal, organisational, or institutional),[5] but is made up of an unlimited network of digital networks fed by a number of sentient AIs – with their countless apps – connected by the Internet and forming what is often called a ‘Collective Mind’ (a term that reminds me of the Durkheimian ‘Collective Conscience’ or the Marxian ‘General Intellect’, which however have different meanings).

I call this reality, – the so-called Collective Mind that gives shape to a new society –the Digital Technological Matrix (henceforth DTM). Our task is to understand how it can change the society of humans, as workers, through the hybridisation of their social identities, relationships, and organisations. The DTM has cultural and structural features. (a) From the cultural point of view, the Digital Matrix (DTM) is the globalised symbolic code from which digital artefacts are created in order to help or substitute human agency by mediating interhuman relations or by making them superfluous. Algorithms are produced by the Matrix. (b) From the structural (and consequently practical) point of view, the DTM is the complex of all digital technologies, based on scientific knowledge and engineering, that consist of computerised devices, methods, systems, electronic machines (digital electronics or digital electronic circuits). Of course, the artefacts produced by the DTM can have different forms of intelligence and more or less autonomy.

In short, the DTM software is part of the cultural system, while its hardware fits into the social structures by occupying the positions that are nodes in the networks of the social division of labour.

It is important to understand: (i) first, that the DTM symbolic code plays a major or dominant role within the whole cultural system of society; (ii) second, that it is the starting point of innovation processes through the discoveries and inventions of scientific research that are subsequently applied in new technologies.

As to the first, I contend that the DTM symbolic code plays a role, in respect to all other cultural symbols, in the same way as the generalised symbolic medium of money has functionalised all the other generalised symbolic media to itself within modern society. Money has been (and still is) the G.O.D. (generator of diversity) of modern society. It has functionalised to itself power, influence, and value commitment (Donati 2011: 150-51).

The DTM symbolic code is now the Generator of Diversity of trans-modern society (or ‘onlife society’, i.e., the society of online life). As an instrumental symbol, it functionalises to itself all the other symbols, e.g.: finalistic symbols such as life and death, work and non-work; moral or normative symbols such as justice or injustice, honesty or dishonesty, normative or anormative, disassembling or reassembling, gluing or ungluing; the value symbols such as worthy or unworthy, good or bad, positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant.

Digital machines become the material infrastructure of an anonymous DTM of communication that feeds the autonomisation of a multiplicity of communicative worlds separated from a humanistic conception of intersubjective and social relations. This DTM becomes detached from any traditional culture based on religious or moral premises and builds its own political power system, economy, and religion. Harari (2017) has taken this scenario to its extreme consequences, claiming that it prefigures how the quest for immortality, bliss, and divinity could shape humanity’s future. In this scenario, human beings will become economically useless because of human enhancement, robotisation, and artificial intelligence, and a new religion will take humanism’s place.

The rationale for this view is that the DTM promotes the digital transformation of the whole society, which is the change associated with the application of digital technology in all aspects of social life, and in particular work. It is expressed in the Infosphere, defined as the environment constituted by the global network of all devices in which AIs are at work receiving and transmitting information. The DTM is therefore the ‘environment’ of all social interactions, organisations, and systems. As such, it promotes a culture deprived of any teleology or teleonomy since it operates as a substitute for any rival moral or theological matrix.[6]

In this scenario, it is necessary to understand how the labour hybridisation process takes place.

2.2. The process of work hybridisation

The hybridisation of work, and the worker at the same time, emerges from a process of social morphogenesis that we can describe through a scheme according to which the social dynamic must be explained by the intertwining of structure, culture, and agency, which are analytically distinct from one another (see Figure 2). Work (or labour) is here considered as a human activity, but, differently from those who consider labour only as “an act of man”,[7] I assume that labour is an intertwining of agency, culture and social structure. In my scheme (Figure 2), I assume that the connections between culture and structure pass through the worker’s agency, which is hybridised by them.

When a company, a school, a hospital, a retirement home for elderly people decides to introduce sophisticated robots in its division of labour, a process begins that we can briefly describe as follows (see the steps marked in the boxes with consecutive numbers in Figure 2).

(1) The subject who works is conditioned by the social structure in which the robot is inserted; since the robot occupies a social position in the structural context, the network of relationships in which the worker finds himself modifies interactions;

(2) Structural hybrids are then generated in the relationship between the worker and other entities that are relevant to him/her (people or things);

(3) These hybrids influence the worker’s agency in so far as they change some aspects of the worker’s body-mind complex (for example, they exempt him/her from heavy or routine work, or they change the ways and times of contact between the worker and other people, etc.);

(4) The changes in the worker’s agency introduce changes in the cultural domain that conditions the socio-cultural interactions of the worker; within these socio-cultural interactions the worker must modify his/her ways of thinking and expressing him/herself (for example he must learn a digital literacy, a semantic ability to interpret the operations of the robot, etc.);

(5) Interacting with the robot, the worker elaborates cultural hybrids that represent the new contents of his/her work;

(6) In turn, these cultural hybrids modify the worker’s agency, who must assimilate certain aspects of the robot’s way of operating;

(7) At the end of this temporal cycle, the worker’s agency has been hybridised in such a way that the worker can again competently tackle the structural conditioning of the robotised context in a reflexive way.

The hybridisation of people’s identities and social organisations consists in the fact that these entities change their relational constitution to the extent that the cultural and structural processes of change affect (I would like to say ‘cross’) the human person and modify her ways of relating to herself, to others, and to the world. Agency is obviously dependent on how the brain and the mind of the person work. Both the brain and the mind are seriously influenced by the way technologies operate (Greenfield 2014) because they absorb certain ways of communicating, using and combining information and following performance logics that can ignore or alter analogical thinking.

Hybridisation means that, through sustained interactions with technologies (the ‘fully networked life’), the previous modes of considering (conceiving) oneself, relationships with others, and what form to give to a social organisation in keeping with the (analogic) principle of reality are mixed with the way digital technology works, that is, the (fictitious) principle of digital virtuality. Hybridisation means blending the real and the fictitious, the analogue and the digital. This happens, for example, when one wants to modify one’s own image or undermine another person’s reputation on social networks.

The possibilities for developing this morphogenetic process in its temporal cycles are certainly dependent on how the digital matrix (DTM) operates in the cultural and structural domains, but we must also consider the autonomous role of human agency.

One may wonder: which morphogenesis occurs in the human person (agency) and in her relational qualities and properties? What happens to social relations?

Notice that the morphogenesis of human agency has active and passive aspects. It is (a) active in both directions, toward the cultural as well as the structural domain, and (b) is, at the same time passive, in so far as it is influenced by the two domains. It is here that the body-mind relational unit has to confront the coherences or dissonances between the two domains. The symbol [] in Figure 2 means that there is a connection of some sort between the cultural and structural processes of hybridisation of the worker in his/her social identity and relationships. Such a connection can be of different kinds, from the maximum of synergy (complementarity), as when cultural identity is well adapted to the position occupied in the social structure, to a maximum of conflict (contradiction), as when cultural identity conflicts with the position occupied in the social structure.

Alač, Movellan and Fumihide (2011) argue that the human involvement in the robot’s social agency is not simply controlled by individual will. Instead, the human-machine couplings are demanded by the situational dynamics in which the robot is lodged. Morana Alač (2016) has enlightened how an educational robot is encountered as a part of everyday practices in social robotics. The focus is on the robot’s materiality that is interactionally achieved. The attention to tactile exploration, spatial arrangements, and multimodal interactional aspects that characterize the encounter indicates how the robot is simultaneously enacted as a thing and as a social agent. She suggests (i) that the social agency of the robot is mutually constituted with its materiality and (ii) that to conceive of the robot’s social character its thing-like aspects need to be taken into account.

These observations are certainly valid in a context that looks at reality in an analogical way, but become problematic in a quantum-type virtual context. What is most relevant in figure 2 is to observe the dematerialization of the worker’s human agency due to AI/robots operating in and through the quantum network (the internet) where information is transmitted with qubits. The process of hybridisation takes place in fact contaminating the work relationships that operate on the basis of the principles of classical physics applied to the natural world with virtual relations that operate on the basis of the postulates of quantum physics, where the latter dematerializes the natural world.

2.3. Issues raised by hybridisation processes

Throughout human history, work has always been hybridised by the appearance of a new highly innovative technology. Each time, advantages and disadvantages have been evaluated both for the subjects of the work and for society as a whole. Every innovation has always been ambivalent in its effects. Let us see a few aspects in the case of digital technologies.

(i) Naastepad and Mulder (2018) point out that, in general, as human intelligence takes hold of production processes, it tends to make work lighter. As a result, labour is obviated worldwide. In the present social and economic set-up, obviated labour tends to take the form of either un-employment or being without work, or under-employment (the transference of those whose labour is obviated into low-skill, low-paid jobs). Robotic automation is useful first of all to exempt workers from routine and heavy jobs. This can cause some unemployment, against which, however, other jobs will arise. In fact, robotization concerns mostly medium-low levels jobs; it’s not about the most creative jobs and it doesn’t absorb the simplest manual jobs for which the use of AI/robots is economically disadvantageous. Work tasks are dematerialized and made more and more ‘virtual’. On balance, due to ongoing innovation, it seems that production requires progressively less labour, and it will be ever harder to achieve inclusive economic, social and cultural existence through growth in production. That is why we need to talk about ‘sustainable work’.

(ii) Workers shall manage lives that are characterised by processes of speeding up, intensification and contingency; Gill (2019) suggests that working in new digital media involves multiple practices of managing the self in conditions of radical uncertainty.

(iii) Entrusting work to AI/robots entails a certain amount of risk for certain dangers of labour commodification (Kaghan 2000) and yet also opens up possibilities for new relationships that enhance the human qualities of work, especially the care of the elderly (Sharkey 2014). In particular, as regards the work of assistance to the elderly carried out by the robots, Amanda Sharkey and Noel Sharkey (2010) argue that, while on the one hand robots and robotic technology could improve the elderly’s lives, reducing their dependence, and creating more opportunities for social interaction, on the other hand they raise ethical concerns associated with: (i) potential reduction in the amount of human contact; (ii) an increase in the feelings of objectification and loss of control; (iii) loss of privacy; (iv) loss of personal liberty; (v) deception and infantilisation; (vi) assessment of the circumstances in which the elderly should be allowed to control robots. They conclude by balancing the care benefits against the ethical costs. On balance, if introduced with foresight and careful guidelines, robots and robotic technology could improve the lives of the elderly, reducing their dependence, and creating more opportunities for social interaction.

(iv) Opposing the idea that AI/robots isolate people, some bioethicists argue that digital technology becomes the occasion of new and interwoven relations between the AI/robot and human persons. For example, Galvan (2003/4) claims that AIs/robots assume people are interacting with them in a fully humane condition: “when you shake the hand of a humanoid, you are in contact with its creator, the engineer”. According to this optimistic view, the machine disappears behind its function the more the human being appears as its true purpose. However numerous empirical researches are much less optimistic. They denounce increasing risks due to a still not very regulated use of humanoid robots. It seems to me that those scholars who support an optimistic point of view according to which AIs/robots are capable of managing interpersonal relationships share a naive view of social relations. In many cases, they think that the same sociability theorized by Aristotle as natural for human beings can also be applied to human-robot interactions.[8]

(v) Teubner (2018) observes that already today in the economy and in society, autonomous software agents, i.e. mathematically formalized information flows, are attributed social identity and ability to act under certain conditions. Due to social action attribution, they have become non-human members of society. They pose three new liability risks: (1) the autonomy risk, which has its origin in stand-alone “decisions” taken by the software agents, (2) the association risk, which is due to the close cooperation between people and software agents, and (3) the network risk that occurs when computer systems operate in close integration with other computer systems. These risks pose a challenge for private law: the need to define a new legal status for autonomous digital information systems.

(vi) Some scholars have investigated the (dis)embeddedness of digital labour within the remote gig economy (Wood, Graham, Lehdonvirta, and Hjorth 2019). By using interviews and survey data, they have highlighted how platform workers in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are normatively disembedded from social protections through a process of commodification. Normative disembeddedness leaves workers exposed to the vagaries of the external labour market due to an absence of labour regulations and rights. It also endangers social reproduction by limiting access to healthcare and requiring workers to engage in significant unpaid ‘work-for-labour’. However, these authors have shown that these workers are also simultaneously embedded within interpersonal networks of trust, which enable the work to be completed despite the low-trust nature of the gig economy. These results demonstrate the importance of informal social relations in supporting work activities by proving a network of social normative aid among the workers, despite the lack of regulations and societal guarantees. In my view, these results show the intimate relational character of work. They reveal that work is ultimately a social relationship.

(vii) Then there is the vast problem of the creation of new social inequalities between those who can use new technologies and those who are deprived of them, within the shift from a division of labour to a division of learning. This is probably the hottest topic, highlighted by many. According to Naastepad and Mulder (2018), the ‘ICT’ Revolution – in particular the integration of artificial intelligence, robotisation, nanotechnology and bioengineering − may prove far more disruptive and divisive than technological revolutions of the past. If human labour is ‘on the way out’, what will happen if the economy no longer provides an income for the majority of people? ‘How will the economy spread money around’ so that people can afford to pay their necessary expenses? On the other hand, the digital economy provides opportunities for new forms of economic practice. At their purest, these forms deliver economic benefits as gifts and depend on cooperation without authority. Drawing loosely on Habermas, one can speak of a lifeworld economy – an economy that is coordinated by communicative interaction – as opposed to the systems economy of market and state, coordinated by money and power (Elder-Vass 2018). This formulation, however, faces both theoretical and practical challenges. On the theoretical side, the notion of a lifeworld economy does not sit easily with Habermas’s own formulation of the distinction between lifeworld and systems. On the practical side, the digital lifeworld economy has been steadily colonised by capitalist businesses, which have frequently found ways to incorporate forms of gift and cooperation into profit-oriented business models.

In the end, we are facing a change of civilization. The deployment of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their uptake by society radically affect the human condition, insofar as they modify our relationships to ourselves, to others and to the world. The ever-increasing pervasiveness of ICTs shakes established reference frameworks through the following transformations: the blurring of the distinction between reality and virtuality; the blurring of the distinctions between human, machine and nature; the reversal from information scarcity to information abundance; and the shift from the primacy of entities to the primacy of interactions (Floridi ed. 2015).

AI technology presents a multitude of ethical concerns, many of which are being actively considered by organizations ranging from small groups in civil society to large corporations and governments. However, it also presents ethical concerns which are not being actively considered. Green (2018) has suggested a broad overview of twelve topics in ethics in AI, including function, transparency, evil use, good use, bias, unemployment, socio-economic inequality, moral automation and human de-skilling, robot consciousness and rights, dependency, social-psychological effects, and spiritual effects.

The risks, dangers, attacks on the dignity of work, as we have seen, are innumerable. In my opinion, to affirm and regenerate the dignity of work, it is necessary to take a fundamental point of view: that is, to rediscover the relational nature of the human being going far beyond what has been pointed out by Aristotle about the meaning and the role of social relations. In fact, the classical thought of Aristotle is no longer sufficient because for him social relations have a teleological structure that derives from human nature, which is no longer possible in the digital age (Morgner ed. 2020). What remains true is the need for human relations that is inherent in work, because it is in the satisfaction of this properly human need that lies the key to happiness and to the realization of the human person. What we must understand is how this natural need can face the new phenomena of the hybridisation of labour relations, work organizations, and work contracts.

3. The emergence of hybridised institutions and organisations

The World Bank defines a hybrid organisational structure as one in which more than one organisational design is used. Accordingly, this should allow an organisation more flexibility in distributing work and assigning job roles. A hybrid organisational structure creates a shared mission and allows for people to work on different projects and in different sectors. This structure creates a unified team of individuals with a common goal and different experience and interest levels. Each individual is able to perform work in the areas he is best suited to, moving from project to project and reporting to different individuals when necessary.

In this contribution, I call hybridised organisations those that pursue this type of configuration by using advanced digital technologies to which a certain degree (min/max) of decisional and operational autonomy is conferred. Technology (AI/robots) takes on an autonomous and decisive role in managing the organisation of roles and relations between the members of the organisation. The digital logic with which hybrid organisations operate is that of increasing opportunities, conceived, however, not within the framework of their relational implications, but according to the maximum useful variability in terms of system efficiency.

The relational approach to social organisations can show why and how AI and robots cannot replace humans because of the specific generative character of inter-human relations. In fact, the utilitarianism of efficiency refers to the relationships between an actor/agent and “things”, while the search for relational goods (or the avoidance of relational evils) implies relationships between human beings, which, unlike algorithms, are generative of meta-reflexive solutions for problems of human relationships.

An example of how an algorithm can generate relational evils: on 21 November 2017, the algorithm of the multinational company Ikea fired a worker of its megastore in a small town near Milan. Marica, a 39-year-old mother separated from her husband with two young children, one of whom is disabled, is fired because she does not observe the new work shift assigned to her by the algorithm. The algorithm has ordered her to show up at 7 a.m., and, instead, she arrives at 9 o’clock according to the old work shift because she has to look after her children, and, in particular, she has to take her disabled child to therapy. Previously, the woman had explained to the manager that she could not work that shift, and the manager said that he would consider her situation, but the algorithm worked on its own and fired her. The company did not review its decision, and, instead, continued to dismiss other workers on the grounds that they did not comply with the indications of the algorithm. Undoubtedly, it cannot be said that the algorithm has not been proven to have decision-making capacity, but it was certainly not the decision of a relational subject.

From a more general viewpoint, as Teubner writes, “Today, with the massive emergence of virtual enterprises, strategic networks, organisational hybrids, outsourcing and other forms of vertical disaggregation, franchising and just-in-time arrangements, intranets and extranets, the distinction of hierarchies and markets is apparently breaking down. The boundaries of formal organisations are blurring. This holds true for the boundaries of administration (hierarchies), of finance (assets and self-financing), of integration (organisational goals and shared norms and values) and of social relations (members and outside partners). In formal organisations, membership becomes ambiguous, geographical boundaries do not matter much anymore, hierarchies are flattened, functional differentiation and product lines are dissolved” (Teubner 2002: 311).

Hybrids raise problems of conflict between divergent normative arrangements. As a strategy to deal with these changes, Teubner recommends a “polycontexturality which combines heterarchy with an overarching unity”, (Teubner 2002: 331) assuming that this organisational solution would represent the new institutional logic capable of avoiding collisions between spheres ruled by incompatible norms.

I take Teubner’s proposal as an example of an attempt to preserve the human (with its regulatory requirements) alongside the acceptance of the entry of new hybrids, through general rules that allow different norms to coexist in different domains (Teubner 2006b). Unitas multiplex is his key word for preserving the integration of society, supposing that human beings and actants, human relations and artificial relations, could coexist within a neo-functional differentiation architecture under the aegis of the DTM.

I have serious doubts about the tenability of this perspective (although it worked in the seventeenth century as the Hobbesian solution to the problem of social order). I think that it is an impracticable solution in a networked society governed by the DTM. In any case, it does not work for a ‘society of the human’. As Hobbesian (Leibnizian) rationalism, Teubner’s idea of a constitutionalisation of the private hybridised spheres does not address the issues of the relations between human and non-human, and the relations between divergent normative spheres. Teubner’s perspective simply avoids the relational issue. In short, it has all the limitations and defects of a multicultural doctrine that ignores the reality of what lies in between opposite spheres that have incompatible normative orders. It avoids the issue of how far the hybridisation processes can go and to what extent they can affect the human.

The same difficulty is present in the Luhmannian theory that seems to do a good job of interpreting the hybridisation processes insofar as it places all cultures under the aegis of a conception of society as an ‘operating system’ (Clam 2000). According to Luhmann, all systems, organisations, and interactions are forced to use a binary functional code that is precisely the one through which the DTM proceeds. Hybridisation follows a functional code. For this reason, he believes that the humanism of old Europe is unsustainable and, therefore, sees no other way than that of considering the human (especially the human of the Western tradition) as a residual entity fluctuating in the environment of the DTM. Are there no alternatives? I think that there are. We must examine the possible scenarios.

4. Three scenarios dealing with the processes of hybridisation

The digital transformation of society is destined to produce different types of hybrids through different types of social morphogenesis. I would like to summarise them in three scenarios: adaptive morphogenesis, turbulent morphogenesis, and relationally steered morphogenesis.

(i) Adaptive MG producing hybrids by trial and error: this is the scenario of a society that adapts itself to the hybridisation processes produced by DTM in an opportunistic way; it is configured as an infosphere without pre-established goals that tries to use the technologies knowing that they have an ambivalent character: they allow new opportunities but also involve new constraints and possible pathologies; therefore, it is essentially engaged in developing self-control tools to limit emerging harms (theories of harm reduction).

(ii) Turbulent MG favouring mutations: this is the scenario of a society that operates for the development of any form of hybridisation; it opens the floodgates to the human freedom to generate contingent and experimental organisations: in principle, it is run by anormativity and anomie (lack of presupposed moral norms) and openness to mutations, understood as positive factors of ‘progress’ (theory of singularity); it operates through ceaseless, unrepeatable, intermingling processes of relational flows with ‘confluences of relating’ (Shotter 2012).

(iii) Relationally steered MG aiming to configure technologies in order to favour relational goods: this is the scenario of a society that tries to guide the interactions between human subjects and technologies by distinguishing between humanising and non-humanising forms of hybridisation. The aim is to produce social forms in which the technologies are used reflexively in order to serve the creation of relational goods (Donati 2019a). This requires that producers and consumers of technologies work together interactively, that is, that they are co-producers (Pestoff 2009) and partners in the design and use of technologies, careful to ensure that technologies do not completely absorb or replace human social relations but enrich them. This alternative is certainly much harder to pursue than harm reduction, but it is not impossible, and it is the one that leads to good life.[9]

Hybridisation overcomes every dualism. In particular, it abandons the dualism between the system and the lifeworld (theorised by Habermas) and replaces it with a complex relational system in which each action/communication must choose between different causal mechanisms (Elder-Vass 2018).

In order to be human, technological enhancement must be able not only to distinguish between the different causal mechanisms, but also to choose the most productive social relationships that generate relational goods. New technologies generate not only unemployment, as many complain. They also release energy for the development of many jobs in the field of virtual reality and make it possible to put human work into those activities that have a high content of care, such as education, social assistance and health, or a high content of cultural creativity.

Laaser and Bolton (2017) have shown that the introduction of new technologies associated with the advance of performance management practices has eroded the ethics of the care approach in banking organisations. Under electronic performance management monitoring in bank branches, in particular, co-worker relationships have become increasingly objectified, resulting in disconnected and conflict-ridden forms of engagement. This research reveals the multi-layered and necessarily complex nature of co-worker relationships in a changing, technologically driven work environment and highlights the necessity for people to defend the capacity to care for others from the erosive tendencies of individualised processes. Within the relational approach, this entails assessing the way in which an organisation uses AI/robots to enhance human relations from the viewpoint of what I call ‘relational ODG systems’ aimed at the relational steering of digitised organisations.

ODG systems (Donati 2011) are based on the sequence: (O) Relational observation à (D) Relational diagnosis à (G) Relational guidance.

(O) Relational observation aims to define the problem to which AI must respond in terms of a problem that depends on a certain relational context. Therefore, it favours the meso level. (D) Relational diagnosis aims to define the satisfactory (or not satisfactory) conditions with respect to the effects produced by the way the AI works on the relational context. (G) Relational guidance aims to modify the AI and its way of working to support a relational context that can be mastered by people.

5. Robotised work and human relations: the challenge of the Humanted

So far, I have argued that the dignity of work in the technological era depends on how work is configured as a social relationship that favours human flourishing or not. To assess the dignity of work, it is necessary to verify that the context in which the working person is placed, the ways in which she carries out her activity, the rewards she gets from it and the effects that her work has on society have a humanizing value, and not alienating the people involved. In essence, talking about the dignity of work in the technological era requires a new relational paradigm to be understood and applied to the new social division of labour.

The challenge here is given by the fact that increasing the capacity of the worker with the AI/robot creates a worker in which the human is increased, that is, the Humanted (Human-augmented) is created. Then the question arises: what kind of human relationships are activated by the Humanted compared to those of the worker who does not use digital technological tools? Let’s think about the use of robots in children’s education, in assisting the elderly, in the relationships of a human organism enhanced by intelligent and sophisticated digitalized mental tools.

Generally speaking, there is no single answer. All we can say today is that these relationships become enigmatic, have positive aspects but also raise new problems to solve.

The discomfort that is manifested arises from the discrepancy between the idea that people have of ‘what is human’ and the perception of being in front of something that is not human or that goes beyond the human, that is something that has to do with the post/trans-human.

In the use of AI/robots, there is something that binds the human person and the technological artefact, while at the same time differentiating them. Differentiation does not leave unchanged the terms of the relationship (human person and robot), because they are affected by their interactions and in some way must “adapt” to each other if they want to continue to be in relationship. This adaptation takes place precisely in/with/through the relationship that they establish between them. Their feedbacks are relational (Donati 2013), which means that one must incorporate something of the other: the human person incorporates something of the robot’s way of behaving to be able to use its abilities, and, vice versa, the robot learns something from the behavior of the human person to adapt to his needs. As far as the human person is concerned, the result of this dynamic is the “augmented human” (Humanted), that is the human person modified by the technologies that increase its natural potential.

The process through which the “powered human reality” emerges is that of the hybridisation of relationships, which involves the hybridisation of the identities of all subjects. Hence the importance of a relational sociology that can deal with the conflict between the human and the post/trans-human produced by technological enhancement processes.

The task of relational sociology is to show that the human is preserved in the social relationships that give a human identity. In other words, relational sociology accepts the challenge of post/trans-human and proposes to show that, in the relationship between human and artificial, something binds them, while they re-differentiate again and again.

The society guided by the digital matrix (the onlife society: Floridi 2015) is rapidly transforming itself towards goals that it ignores itself. Identity – any identity – is called into question, to the point that some scholars propose to do without the same concept of identity to solve it in the pure dynamism of relationships, as if relationships did not have their own structure, with specific properties, and their own causal dynamism.

If identities no longer make a difference, then even the human being no longer has an identity, and so the road to post/transhuman opens up. If the human person does not have a substantial identity, but is resolvable without residues in relationships, then changing relationships by spreading new technologies, it is possible to create another world, that of the androids, the humanoids, the ‘electronic people’, thought of as substitutes for human persons, so as to reach a new stage of evolution (the theory of singularity), beyond human identity.

Faced with this scenario, relational sociology proposes to draw clear distinctions both with traditional views of the relationship and with “relationalism”. Everyone talks about relationships, and undoubtedly the term “relationship” can be defined in many different ways. On the one hand, there are those who invoke relationships as characteristics of the human (according to Aristotle’s vision), which refers to natural relationships that are precisely eroded and erased by new technologies.

On the other hand, there are post-modern relationists, who maintain that relationships dissolve substances, they dissolve human nature (for example Shotter 2012). In this way, they lead straight to seeing society as a field devoid of social structures (for example, inequalities and structural conflicts) and lacking the cultural identities necessary for people’s self-awareness. To affirm that society is liquid means to propose a certainly evocative image, but completely misleading with respect to reality, in which social and cultural structures heavily condition social life and identities themselves.

To avoid falling into the fallacies of those who do not understand relational structures and dynamics, it is necessary to distinguish between relational and relationalist social sciences. The former are based on critical realism, adopt a stratified social ontology, consider social relations as emerging effects that go beyond the individual contributions given by agents, and generally follow the principles of the life-worlds and use an analytical kind of knowledge. The latter, on the other hand, are based on a kind of pragmatism that reduces everything to processes without finalism, they mean relationships as transactions, they adopt a flat ontology, they do not consider social relations as emerging effects, and treat society as an artificial reality that can be modified at will through virtual knowledge.

We can say that the social structures of work and the social identities of those who work are relational not only because they constitute a symbolic reference (refero) and they define bonds between subjects that occupy different positions (religo), but because they are realities that emerge from the mutual actions of subjects, individual and collective, and give them a form. People activate relationships on the basis of their own identity, but, over time, the relationships thus generated are reflected on the subjects and change their identity. Certainly, the reverse process also occurs. It is possible to change the relationship, and thereby change the identity. In all cases, it is necessary to see under what conditions this is possible and with what consequences, in terms of relational goods or evils that are produced.

In order not to fall into tautologies or vicious circles, we must see identity as a “subjectivity in relationship”, that of a subject that is constituted relationally, the “relational subject” (Donati and Archer 2015). To say that it is constituted relationally does not mean to say that it does not have its own nature. The point is that this nature takes the form of relationships experienced in the course of life but has a substance of its own. In short, the substance (or nature) of the human person and her relationships are co-principles of social life, that is, they work together, without one term being able to absorb the other completely. Traditional humanism was limited to affirming the substantial nature proper to the human being and to deriving social relations from this nature. This is no longer possible, with the exception of traditional craft works.

Since traditional humanism will inevitably decline, society will be faced with an alternative: to transform the human into an indefinite post/trans-human or take the path of a neo-humanism that will have to be relational. Relational sociology opts for this second solution. It assumes the task of understanding the problems of the human person and of the whole society passing from unrelated thinking to relational thought. Humanism is either relational, or it is not. The human must be nourished by a relational rationality, otherwise it does not exceed itself, but regresses or degrades in the non-human.

To those who opt for the transition to some sort of post/trans-human work, it can be objected that the essence of the human work – its dignity – is found in the relationship to “Other from Self”, primarily the interpersonal one, because, from the anthropological point of view, what is human originates in the I-You relationship. It is in the relationship that the person must learn how to accept her own limits and in the same desire to overcome her own natural finiteness to respond to the need for transcendence that characterizes her in her deepest identity.

6. How to preserve and promote the dignity of work in the digital economy

The dignity of the worker and the dignity of work are concepts that match each other but are not identical. The first refers to the dignity of the human person, the second to the dignity of an activity, which consists of relations between the human person and a context, inclusive of other people, mediated by technologies. The dignity of work consists in recognizing to work the substance and the qualities of a social relationship between those who demand and those who offer certain performances, accomplishments, services.

The dignity of work consists therefore in the way and degree in which it respects and favours the humanization of the person not as an abstract individual, but as a relational being that acts in a social context to generate relational goods.

In concrete terms, to promote the dignity of work in an increasingly digitalized environment, it is necessary to: (i) increase awareness of work as a social relation, and not only as a functional performance, and therefore configure it as a social relationship; (ii) enhance the capacity of the worker to manage relations with technology through digital literacy and reflexivity; ensure that the work activity favours the exercise of the (meta)relational reflexivity of the worker; (iii) apply relational contracts to the work that allow the worker to pursue a balanced daily life between work and family and private life.

Let us look at these aspects in detail.

(i) Work as a social relation

In the working activity various realities intertwine: the physical and mental activity of the worker, the technology used, the social context. Very often, work is considered as a performance consisting of these dimensions activated by a person, whose skills and abilities are evaluated to give a certain dignity to what she does. But this view is reductive and even fallacious in many respects for the following reasons (see Figure 3): (i) the natural, practical (technological) and social dimensions of work are closely intertwined and deeply influenced by the environment; (ii) the working activity is a social relationship that unfolds between a physical environment and ultimate concerns that refer to a transcendent symbolic reality that gives a deep meaning to work; (iii) this implies that the worker is not a mere individual actor as envisaged by traditional personalism interested in his qualities and behaviors, but is a relational subject, whose subjectivity is constituted through the work as a social relationship; that is why we cannot erase the correlation between the dignity of work and the dignity of the human person as an individual-in-relationship.

Figure 3 shows how the various interactions between the natural world, technological practices and social relations within primary and secondary networks hybridise the worker. I cannot detail these interactions here. Let me just make some empirical reference.

Amanda Jane Sharkey (2014) has introduced the capability approach (CA) as a different but tangible account of what it means to live a life worthy of human dignity. It is used here as a framework for the assessment of the possible effects of eldercare robots on human dignity. The CA enables the identification of circumstances in which robots could enhance dignity by expanding the set of capabilities that are accessible to frail older people. At the same time, it is also possible within its framework to identify ways in which robots could have a negative impact, by impeding the access of older people to essential capabilities. She concludes that the CA has some advantages over other accounts of dignity, but that further work and empirical study is needed in order to adapt it to the particular circumstances and concerns of those in the latter part of their lives.

What is called ‘relational social work’ (Folgheraiter 2004) is mainly concerned with care work, such as children’s education and care for the elderly, the disabled and dependents, which are jobs with a high intensity of human relations. In particular, we know that childcare robots are being manufactured and developed with the long-term aim of creating surrogate carers.

Noel Sharkey and Amanda Sharkey (2010) have raised ethical questions about the part or full-time replacement of primary carers. The questions are about human rights, privacy, robot use of restraint, deception of children and accountability. But the most pressing ethical issues concern the consequences for the psychological and emotional wellbeing of children in the context of the child development literature on the pathology and causes of attachment disorders. They consider the adequacy of current legislation and international ethical guidelines on the protection of children from the overuse of robot care.

(ii) Promote relational meta-reflexivity in the interactions between worker and machine

The hybridisation of work involves a certain heterodirection of the worker by the machine. If we want to maintain and increase the dignity of work it is necessary that the conditioning structure of the work (the right side of Figure 2) allows the worker to exercise reflexive interactions with the machine, with the product of work, and with the recipients of the product. Reflexivity is a problem because it can be of various types.

In fact, the reflexivity promoted by the organization of work is very often of a dependent type (the worker decides only after consulting the AI on which it depends), or of an autonomous type (the worker thinks and acts independently, in a non-relational way). The former happens at more executive levels, the latter at the management level. When it is neither of one type or another, it is often impeded or fractured. Only relational meta-reflexivity can promote an authentic dignity of work (it consists in reflecting on how the relationship between the worker and the machine can be improved in terms of humanizing the people involved). In short, the dignity of work requires that the interactions between worker and machine can be steered by the worker’s relational reflexivity (see Figure 4).

(iii) ‘Work relational contracts’

If work (a job) is a social relationship between subjects and between social spheres, then employment contracts should regulate this relationship, and not just the so-called synallagma (i.e. performances and compensations). This is the idea of work relational contract (Donati 2011: 183-189). The existential condition of the person also enters the work relationship, in particular his/her family life. Dignity is preserved by the fact that there is recognition that work has repercussions on the worker’s family, so it is necessary to balance work times with those of the family and provide services to children and people who depend on the worker.

A new relational vision of the dignity of work exceeds the traditional vision of work as a functional performance characterised by the qualities and properties of the worker as an individual person. The process of work hybridisation calls for a new ethical assessment and regulation of work relations according to a stronger version of the principle of responsibility understood as ‘taking care’ of other people and not just ‘answering’ when one is required to give an account of what one has done, as proposed by Zamagni (2019: 191-92). Taking care concerns not only the individuals, but also any collective entity, and society at large. In my opinion, this principle of responsibility vis-à-vis the hybridisation of work can work only if an adequate culture of social and human relations prevails in civil society. Relation, in fact, means rel/action, i.e. a reciprocal, mutually responsible action. AI/robots must be evaluated on the basis of the possibility of implementing similar rel/actions, which today does not happen, and appears perhaps theoretically impossible. For this reason, the implementation of responsibility remains entirely in the hands of human persons, although legally it can be ‘distributed’ among various actors, including machines.

This opinion of mine is tantamount to claiming that the dignity of the “work for man” (and not vice versa) is preserved and promoted on condition that the working subject can reflexively re-enter into her objective activity the relational distinction human/non-human along the process of morphogenetic hybridisation of work. Hence the consequences on labour contracts and the organization of work that must adopt a relational paradigm of work dignity.

7. Conclusions

Let us go back to the beginning of this paper: “The sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one. (…) the primary basis of the value of work is man himself, who is its subject” (Laborem Exercens, 6). Is this perspective still valid? My answer is yes and no, depending on the role attributed to social relations. Let’s see what it means.

What happens if the value of work is attributed to an AI/robot instead of a human person since the work was entirely done in an autonomous and intelligent way by the machine? After all, even the work of the AI/robot has its own dignity, but of course it is different from the dignity of human work. So, where is the difference?

In this contribution, I have suggested that the difference lies in the qualities and causal properties of the human relationships that a job allows or, on the contrary, obstructs or impedes. This is a new criterion for assessing the value of human work and its dignity, which now depends on the relationality expressed by the human subject through the mediation of the digital technology. We need a ‘relational turn’ in this field.

The enhancement of human beings through digital technologies (ICT, AI, robots) compels us to evaluate whether, how, and when these technologies feed the flourishing or, vice versa, the alienation of humanity. Social identities, relations, and organisations are forced to take shape in the environment of a Digital Technological Matrix that works as a symbolic code that tends to replace the ontological, ideal, moral, and theological matrices that have structured societies in the past. As a form of Tech-Gnosis, its peculiarity is that of making the boundaries between human and non-human labile and crossable in every way in order to foster hybrids. Hybrids, however, are not random and purely contingent entities. They stem from complex interactional networks in which social relations are mediated by the DTM. The processes of hybridisation are selective and stratified according to the ways in which the human/non-human distinction is thought and practised. Three possible scenarios of hybridisation can be outlined: adaptive, turbulent, and relationally steered.

As a criterion for evaluating hybridisation processes, I have proposed assessing how digital technologies mediate the transformations of the worker’s mind-body identity with its sociality so as to assess when such mediations produce those relational goods that lead to a virtuous human fulfilment or, instead, to relational evils.

The justification of this perspective is based on the fact that human beings are at the same time the creators of society and its product. They are the parents and the children of society. As a consequence, it is not the physical world (anthropocene) and/or the artificial world (AI/robots) that can produce the human being as a human being, but society, which, from the point of view of my relational sociology, consists of relationships, i.e. ‘is’ (and not ‘has’) relationships. Therefore, the quality and causal property of what is human comes into existence, emerges and develops only in social life, that is, only in and through people’s sociability. In fact, only in sociality does nature exist for the human being as a bond with the other human being. The vital element of human reality lies in the relationality, good or bad, that connects Ego to Other and Other to Ego. The proper humanization of the worker is achieved only through the sociality that can be enjoyed by generating those relational goods in which the naturalism of the human being and his technological enhancement complement each other. To reach this awareness, people need a special (sui generis) reflexivity, that I call ‘relational reflexivity’, as a form of steered meta-reflexivity exerted on their social relations mediated by the DTM.

The dignity of work, as a strictly human activity, is preserved and promoted by ensuring the subject the possibility of continually re-entering the relational distinctions put in place along the process of morphogenetic hybridisation of work as an objective activity.

The concept of human dignity, and correlatively the idea of work dignity, can be significant only at the following conditions: (i) if one admits that these concepts refer to a twofold transcendent reality: an immanent transcendence (what transcends factual reality for emergence from empiricism) and meta-reality (transcendence that does not depend on facts because it is meta-empirical: Bhaskar 2012); (ii) and if one is able to see and manage the intrinsic relationships between work activity and what is essential to the human. In the absence of these conditions, the proposals of a good society sound in vain or they are reduced to abstract moral and legal notions.

This is the case, for instance, of the three reports issued in October 2016 by the White House, the European Parliament, and the UK House of Commons outlining their visions on how to prepare society for the widespread use of AI. After assessing the merits of these reports, Cath et al. (2017) complain that they do not provide any foresight for describing the future that, as a society, we would like to see. Their analysis concludes that these reports address adequately various ethical, social, and economic topics, but come short of providing an overarching political vision and long-term strategy for the development of a ‘good AI society’. In the end, Cath et al. recommend a two-pronged approach in order to steer the process of developing the ‘good AI society’. According to them, on the one hand, policies should ensure that AI is steered fully towards promoting the public good; on the other hand, the projects could fruitfully rely on the concept of human dignity as the lens through which to understand and design what a good AI society may look like.

In my view, these authors have to admit that both notions of ‘public good’ and ‘human dignity’ are latent realities, irreducible to their immanent definitions in legal or otherwise terms. These realities belong to the relations between the domain of immanent transcendence and meta-realty, i.e. to the latency of society (Donati 2019b). Also the ideas of a green economy (the so-called ‘green new deal’) and circular economy must come to terms with the need to respect and promote the human dignity of work, considering that sometimes they subordinate the human to the needs of technology, not to mention the internet of things.


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[1] It is worth noting that the discourse on dignity (the “dignity talk”) is basically focused on human dignity and not on the dignity of work (see Kirchhoffer 2013, 2017).

[2] Gesa Lindemann (2016) offers a sociological understanding of human dignity as a structural feature of modern functionally differentiated society. She argues that being responsible is equivalent to being recognized as a bearer of dignity. The criterion that allows someone to be recognized as a bearer of dignity is being identified as a living human body.

[3] Luhmann writes: “With the aid of conceptualisations drawn from the theory of self-referential systems, i.e. with the aid of the idea that systems produce a self-description through their own operations and can observe themselves, the connexion between communication, action and reflexion can be separate from the theory of the subject (the theory of the subjectivity) of consciousness). Of course, we are not maintaining that there could be social systems without consciousness being present. Subjectivity, the presence of consciousness, consciousness as basis, is conceived, however, as the environment of social systems and not as their self-reference. Only through this distancing do we gain the possibility of developing a truly ’autonomous’ theory of social systems”: see Podak (1986: 63-64).

[4] I use here the concepts of work and labour, meaning work as an activity in a broad sense and labour as a job. We can speak of ‘work-for-labour’ as time spent on work-related activities such as breaks, training, job searching and applying and waiting for work gone unpaid, even though such activities were inevitable consequences of the manner in which these platforms organised labour (Standing 2016).

[5] I call analogic relationships those that have constraints due to their concrete structure (like interpersonal relationships, or relations between positions in an institution or organization). Digital relationships are distinguished from analog ones because they do not have such constraints.

[6] Teubner (2006a: 337) describes the way in which the anonymous matrix pervades the world of work: “It extends to infinity the usurpation potential of its special medium, power, without any immanent restraints. Its operative closure and its structural autonomy let it create new environments for itself, vis-à-vis which it develops expansive, indeed downright imperialist tendencies. Absolute power liberates unsuspected destructive forces. Centralised power for legitimate collective decisions, which develops a special language of its own, indeed a high-flown rationality of the political, has an inherent tendency to totalize them beyond any limit”.

[7]  As Rocco Buttiglione maintains when he writes: “With the expression ‘dignity of labour’ we mean the fact that labour is an act of man”.

[8] Some philosophers propose an ethics of technology based on three assumptions that I do not agree with: 1) first, according to them, the purpose of technology is always the interpersonal relationship, because a technological product must serve to unite the people, not to put them against each other; to me, it is an improbable assumption, because many digital technologies serve to render interpersonal relationships superfluous; 2) the second assumption is that science, when it becomes technology, would be humanized, that is, it would approach man because it must serve him, which is to be proved; 3) the third assumption holds that the more the machine develops, the more it hides; as proof of its validity, it is observed that today human beings live with so many machines without realizing it; but to say that people are not aware of the machines they use, does not mean that these machines do not have a decisive influence on them (think of smartphones).

[9] Toivonen and Saari (eds. 2019); Valcárcel-Dueñas and Solórzano-García (2019); other practical examples can be found in the journal ‘Relational Social Work’ (free access).


Dignity and the Future of Work

International  Symposium on Dignity and the Future of Work In the age of the 4th... Read more

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