Morality and ethics - the 'next big thing' for IT suppliers

Nobody in the IT profession can be disappointed that technology has become such a central part of the way we all live and work.

For anyone who has been in the industry for 10 or more years, it is fantastic to see IT taking its central place in business and society; for technology to become cool at last; and for IT experts to no longer be dismissed as the geeks in the basement.

IT is enabling so many positive things – changing our world in the biggest social and business revolution since the industrial age.

But with that greater influence, comes greater responsibility. It is inevitable there would be a backlash, and that backlash is well and truly underway.

IT was at the heart of the global boom in financial services. Today it stands accused of enabling the behaviours of bankers that crippled Western economies.

Facebook and social media have transformed personal communications, enabled new communities and improved information sharing for all. But at what cost for privacy of our personal information.

Google and Amazon have made it easy to find information, to buy quickly and cheaply, opening up new knowledge and commercial opportunities. And they are pilloried as arrogant tax avoiders.

But the biggest example of the dark side of technology so far is dominating front pages and web pages alike around the world – the US National Security Agency (NSA) monitoring of electronic communications, and the allegations of complicity on the part of the global internet giants that provide that data.

Look at all the great things the web allows us to do – and look at how easy that makes it to create a surveillance society. As someone said recently, if you could give George Orwell one Tweet from beyond the grave, he would write: “I told you so #Prism”.

This backlash is an inevitable stage in the progress of technology and the digital revolution, but of course it presents challenges on a scale that the world has never before had to comprehend.

Today we call people who resist the tide of technological change Luddites, but the textile workers who gained that name when they destroyed the mechanised looms that threatened their livelihoods in the industrial revolution were simply examples of the 19th century version of the backlash that technology will have to go through in the 21st.

The immediate aftermath of the NSA Prism revelations will see greater demands from governments for Google Facebook, Microsoft et al to establish local datacentres for their cloud services that ensure data is not shipped into leaky US-hosted servers, and subject instead to local laws and oversight. (Not that locally stored data would be any less surveilled by those governments, of course).

We will see more “walled gardens” created, often to the horror of internet evangelists who rightly say the strength of the web is its openness and collaborative nature. More people will want to know that their web activity is actively protected, and will use the open web only for less sensitive information.

But what we will also see, eventually, is morality and ethics becoming one of the ways in which technology companies of all kinds are judged.

Post-industrial revolution employers who embraced trade unionism were revered and grew their business through their acknowledgement of the new relationship between company and workers.

In the same way, tech firms of tomorrow will need to demonstrate they are able to manage the increasingly fine line between opportunity and responsibility that the digital world creates.

Protecting privacy will be a badge of honour, not a 50,000-word statement of terms and conditions. A transparent recognition of the needs of the intelligence services and how that affects users will engender trust. Even more likely will be the rise of services that put personal data back where it belongs – in the hands of web users, not web providers.

The whole nature of the relationship between technology firms and their users – both consumer and corporate – is going to change before the digital revolution is complete.

But before that happens, the dark side of technology is going to dominate the headlines. For smart IT suppliers looking for a new way to differentiate themselves, trust, morality and ethics are the next big thing.

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