How to not mess up with technology

Digital ethics is something that organisations need to take seriously

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How to not mess up with technology Frank Buytendijk is research vice president at Gartner.
By  Frank Buytendijk Published  April 21, 2015

The scandals and societal debate around intended and unintended ethical consequences of use of digital technology requires CIOs, senior IT professionals, boards, risk officers and investors to pay close attention to digital ethics as part of digital risk and digital business.

With the traditional IT function expanding to digital business, there is an acute need to develop and maintain digital ethics, especially when considering the scandals in the press and the public discourse. Unintended consequences and the amplification of their effects make the risk very real, very fast.

The scope of digital ethics is broad and includes security, cyber-crime, privacy, social interaction, governance, free will, and society and economy at large. Most mature professional disciplines have their own ethics. Consider for instance medical ethics or military ethics. In contrast, the ethics of technology are somewhat obscure, even in academic circles.

Many professions have specific ethical codes. Think of medical ethics, legal ethics, military ethics, scientific ethics, engineering ethics, accounting ethics, educational ethics and so on. However, in the field of information technology, ethical codes are less common, less developed and less prominent. This may have been caused by the relative immaturity of IT compared to other professions, or by the fact that, so far, IT has been seen as an amoral field. There are ethics of technology, even with contemporary subcategories such as computer ethics, Internet ethics and information ethics, but even in academic circles these are obscure.

Digital ethics consists of two terms: “digital” and “ethics” — both important in this context.

Digital refers to digital business. Digital business is the creation of new business designs by blurring the lines between the digital and physical worlds. It promises to usher in an unprecedented convergence of people, business and things that disrupts existing business models — even those born of the Internet and e-business eras. With people, businesses and things communicating, transacting, and even negotiating with each other, a new world comes into being — the world of digital business.

Why are digital ethics important?

Business (and the technologies used in business for that matter) being an amoral force is a position that simply cannot be maintained as a point of view. The consequences of ignoring this new truth are severe.For example, once technology is introduced beyond business users that can be controlled, the use is out of your hands and full of unintended consequences. This digital risk can lead to public embarrassment and scandals; harm people’s privacy, health or lives; and harm the business in terms of reputation or shareholder value. The use of technology should be monitored for unintended consequences. Should there be public backlash, it is good to have a well-reasoned response.

The Edelman Trust Barometer in business has continued to decline over the last decade, to 54% in 2014, harming business growth and customer satisfaction.

There is an opportunity to create a distinctive capability in the market that differentiates from the competition. Digital ethics can lead to digital products and services whose value is thought through in a better way, resulting in higher customer satisfaction.

Technology innovation, such as in cloud, mobile, social and big data moves faster than society, business and people can organise around it or even comprehend. Ethical questions arise. Are these technological developments good or bad for us? What guardrails do we need? Can these developments take place autonomously, or should they be more directed? Because ethics are always preceding laws and regulations, this is not a compliance issue, but requires taking a stand yourself.

In digital business, the concept of virtue is shifting. The traditional ‘machinist’ defines virtue as automating mundane and repetitive tasks and as creating systems to increase human productivity, thereby leading to more efficient and effective organisations. IT’s target audience has always mostly consisted of known users that could be trained in their jobs to operate the system.

In contrast, digital business requires digital humanism, where virtue is defined as technology being able to help people reach their goals and do new things. The target audience for digital technology is broader than known users; it consists of consumers, too. It requires systems that contextually adapt to human behavior and learn from people to service their needs in many aspects of their lives, which surfaces many ethical considerations.

There is no fixed scope of digital ethics, other than that it discusses contemporary uses of digital technology in the triangle of people, business and things. There is a list of real-world examples that provide abundant evidence that the need for digital ethics is pervasive.

Frank Buytendijk is research vice president at Gartner.

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