Is Technology Really Evil?
As far as I can remember, technology has always been suspected of bringing us the worst evils without ultimately the prophecies being fulfilled. Lack of knowledge of the subject by the prophets who saw only a misunderstood black box? Lack of understanding of the evolution of society which one day is ready to accept or even asks what it would have refused yesterday? Something else ? It must be a bit of all of that.
Humans are schizophrenic when it comes to talking about good and bad.
And then we cannot approach the notions of right and wrong without trying to understand the prism through which humans look at things. And we have to admit that he is often ambiguous, even schizophrenic. It is enough to look at a hot topic to realize it: personal data.
The same person will tell you in the same discussion that they care about respecting their privacy, that they are concerned about the use that companies make of the data collected on them but that they are asking for personalized service, while taking care to block cookies on their browser. Not knowing what to think about it.
Technology is not the problem, usage is.
I always had the same answer when this topic was discussed. The problem is not whatever technology it is, but who is using it. But that’s nothing new: you can use a shovel to dig and plant a tree as if to kill someone.
Today I will nevertheless go a little further in my remarks. The problem is with whoever uses it and whoever designs it. When you create a weapon of mass destruction you cannot simply get out of customs by blaming everything on the unconscious madman who used it. People who were proud of their intellectual contribution to the atomic bomb program felt uncomfortable when it was actually used.
In short, we always come back to the same topic ethics. Technology is neutral, user and designer ethics are not.
And today the big subject is of course personal data.
Cambridge Analytica affair with Facebook, aspiration of unwanted data by Android, evangelization around the GDPR, the Internet user finally woke up. If it took a long time to understand that “if it’s free, it’s because you are the product”, he now understands that it goes much further. Even too much.
I am amused that people were surprised or shocked by the Cambridge Analytica affair. Data is Facebook’s business model and when you become a billionaire by selling people’s lives, you shouldn’t expect that to change one day. It was not only inevitable but it will happen again because it is the logic of things.
When I speak of the user of the technology, of course I am not talking of the end user who is often the target, the “product”, but of the company that implements it. Here Facebook, inseparable from its founder. Yes Zuckerberg has no form of ethics, or he is 30 years ahead of the company. Or its lack of ethics will precisely push the company not to go in this direction. And we have seen employees leave Facebook for precisely this reason: they no longer endorsed the direction taken by the company … even if few opened up publicly, or did so too late. And users have done the same.
Does tech have its whistleblowers?
Whistleblowers enjoy good sympathy ratings in society, as they do not confuse this role with the pursuit of personal interests. The question is: who in a technology box can or should act as a whistleblower. Or demonstrate an ethic that will make them say “no I will not develop this”, “no I cannot sell this”.
This is reminiscent of an initiative of the Mozilla Foundation which, in collaboration with researchers and professors, has just launched a program aimed at reintroducing ethics in computer training. Other major universities have also introduced ethics in the training courses of computer scientists (MIT, Stanford). In my opinion, it is a subject which is more to introduce than to reintroduce. Already that ethics has never held the upper hand in training courses, except for senior leaders (no matter what they do with it), we never thought that it was a subject of ‘executives, but, precisely, decision-makers. With ethical decision-makers, there is no need for the subject to pollute the ground. Mozilla’s initiative suggests that ethics must be a subject better distributed in the company and that if the decision-maker does not demonstrate it, it is up to someone else to demonstrate it in his place.
If the data is new oil, there will never be a data business without a data ethics. And to see that we are trying to make it a subject among those who develop the technologies of tomorrow is certainly a good thing.
It remains to be seen how this will then transpose into business. While Chief Data Officers are popping up all over the place, I have yet to see a company put ethics back at the center of its business. I mean with the means and with a person at a sufficient level for his to see the door and the authority necessary to stop a deviant initiative. And I won’t be surprised if that doesn’t happen before a customer rebellion or a heavy sentence in court.
In short, let’s have confidence in technological progress, it is neutral. But let’s still look at the Men behind it.
Bertrand Duperrin is Digital Transformation Practice Leader in Emakina. He was previously Consulting Director at Nextmodernity, a firm in the field of business transformation and management through social business and the use of social technologies.