Conrad, Kant and Computers: Looking to the Past for the Future of Professional Duty

Andy Bissett
Kai K. Kimppa

When considering the development, operation and maintenance of IT systems, we would really like a guarantee that ‘wise, experienced, knowledgeable professionals will conscientiously perform their duties’ (Shibl et al, 2008: 61). Accountability mechanisms (such as quality management systems) can help to a degree, but a paradox of such ‘technical’ strategies is that without strong guiding ethical values, these measures alone cannot guarantee the successful employment of information systems (ibid.).

An idea of professional duty is examined and elaborated using three seafaring fictions by Joseph Conrad – Youth, written in 1898, The End of the Tether appearing in 1902, and The Shadow Line published in 1917. The use of fiction as a source for research poses some interesting questions about the ‘evidence status’ of such material. However, sufficient support is available from the literature to provide reassurance that this procedure can be valid, provided that it is carefully used (Banks & Banks, 1998). For example, Strom (2007) demonstrates the use of fictive scenarios in industrial software development, and Bolton (1994: 56) argues the general case that fiction can be used to drive the exploration of complex or ambiguous issues, although ‘A fictional text does not present a complete picture any more than it offers a set of facts’. Fictional material can be employed to shed light upon important matters in the realm of less accessible – subjective – issues, such as identity. Of particular relevance is the use of fictional material to explore professional development (Bolton, 1994; 2000).

Whilst important criticism has been levelled at some of Conrad’s work (Achebe, 2001), the seafaring fictions provide a vivid and compelling account of the dedication that those working in the field of ICT might recognise as part of ‘professionalism’. Most IT projects do not contain the life-or-death, high drama of these seafaring tales, but important features and trends can be discerned and some lessons drawn out. The seafarer’s duties from the age of sailing ships – to the crew, to the owner, to the vision of their vocation – can enliven and enrich the conception of professional duty today. Especially relevant is the issue of professional identity, which is often at the heart of these stories. Conrad’s protagonists frequently function on the subjective terrain of professional identity in a fashion that (later in the Twentieth Century) might be called existentialist, although this vision of vocation can also be related to Wenger’s ‘communities of practice’ (1999). Professional duty and professional identity are closely bound together here. The capacity for personal self-regulation often appears in these stories via identification with an ideal professional model, not simply through an unthinking respect for the law, and certainly not by reward, which Conrad labels ‘distasteful’. In this respect there is an echo of Kant’s conception of duty and the need to think, and voluntarily follow the categorical imperative in any given moral situation (Kant, 1785).

Conrad’s conception of duty rests in large part on his essentialist conception of ‘human nature’. His view is the traditional (and much-criticised) one that civilisation is a thin veneer keeping humanity away from chaos and bestiality. Duty becomes a critical guiding factor when circumstances (and other people) conspire to threaten chaos. Duty becomes a critical test of vocational dedication in these stories. In difficult circumstances a key strength in Conrad’s conception of professional duty is provided by the idea that an individual professional forms part of a continuous ‘dynasty’, formed by experience, training, tradition, and a self-conscious acceptance of duty. This may represent a difference with the modern IT industry, wherein a mobile, fast-changing aspect is evident. The relative lack of tradition in the IT industry may limit the formation of a professional identity, or at least give it a particular character as discussed by Sennett (2006).

Nonetheless, Conrad’s conception of duty is worth exploring. Questions of probity, integrity, and the conscientious performance of duty under difficult circumstances resonate throughout these stories, which have been read and studied for around one hundred years. Although fictional, their meaningfulness for millions of people is hard to dispute. We highlight the current day implications. We argue that these stories can provide a stimulating and entertaining resource for developing concepts of professionalism that are relevant to IT practitioners today and in the future.


Achebe, C. (2001) An Image of Africa: racism in Conrad's ‘Heart of Darkness’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, New York: Norton

Banks, S.P. and Banks, A. (1998) Fiction and Social Research: by ice or fire, Lanham MD: AltaMira Press

Bolton, G. (1994) Stories at Work: fictional-critical writing as a means of professional development, British Educational Research Journal, 20 (1), 55-68

Bolton, G. (2000) Reflective Practice: writing and professional development, London: Sage

Kant, Immanuel (1785) Originally Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, several translations used, most commonly translated as Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals as in, last checked 4.11.2004, but e.g. Brendan E. A. Liddell’s translation is called Kant on the Foundation of Morality

Sennett, R. (2006) The Culture of the New Capitalism, London: Yale University Press

Shibl, R., Fielden, K., Pain, D., Bissett, A. (2008) Trust and Clinical Information Systems, in P. Duquenoy, C. George, K. Kimppa (editors) Ethical, Legal & Social Aspects of Medical Informatics, Hershey, PA: Medical Information Science Reference (IGI Global). 48-64

Strom, G. (2007) Stories with emotions and conflicts drive development of better interactions in industrial software projects, Proceedings of the 19th Australasian Conference on Computer-Human Interaction (OZCHI), (251), 115-121

Wenger, E. (1999) Communities of Practice, Cambridge University Press