Are you proud or ashamed to work in IT?

I have just read the report “People, power and technology: the tech workers view” produced by Doteveryone . 28% of respondents to a survey of tech workers had seen decisions made that could have negative consequences for society. One in five has gone on to leave the company as a result. The situation is worse with regard to those working in AI. 59% have worked on products they see as detrimental to society. 27% of them have left in consequence. However, despite their concerns, 80% believe their technology has benefited society as a whole. They are optimistic for the future. They want to be personally engaged with company, far more than outside regulatory, policies to ensure that the benefits outweigh the harms.

In the early 1980s, when the BCS got its Royal Charter, I lectured on professionalism and the meaning of the code of conduct. We were proud to work in Information Technology. We knew the industry had its faults and thought improved “professionalism” would cure those. We were wrong. The industry is no more “professional” today that it was then. The trustees  of professional bodies cannot afford to underwrite the legal cost of enforcing codes of conduct. Most have nor yet to introduce mandatory, independently verified, log books – to record ongoing competence and conduct.  Government has yet to introduce regulation that is fit for purpose, responding effectively to identified abuse. Instead we have tick box compliance regimes which provide “cosy bureaucratic armchairs” for semi-civil servants.

The Doteveryone report indicates that nearly half those working in Tech as a whole, but fewer of those working in AI, think current regulation is too light touch. Meanwhile the new leadership of Ofcom is said to be planning a programme to forecast the future of the telecoms so that it can engage in pre-emptive regulation.  But “Laws seldom prevent what they forbid”- Edward Gibbon.  The popularity of Gibbon’s “Decline and fall of the Roman Empire” (caused by a mix of corruption, over-regulation, over-taxation and a state religion) led to support for the policies (anti-corruption drives, bonfires of craft protection regulation and excise taxes, plus religious tolerance) that enabled the first industrial evolution to flourish in England and Wales. Few of those working in AI will have heard of Gibbon. But 80% want opportunities to work with their employers to ensure their creativity is used for the benefit of society. They appear to have little or no faith is the ability of regulators to do more than constrain choice, without preventing abuse. There is also an age effect. Those younger and more junior are more likely to believe in the power (for good) of regulation than those older and more senior.

Are you among the young optimists who are proud of working in Tech? Or are you among those ashamed of what your employer is doing but unable to leave?

Either way, I recommend you read the report , not just my summary above, before thinking about the wider context.

Shortly after the banking crash I was on the selection panel for a Parliamentary Candidate for the 2010 election. One of those short list had no problem in saying she worked for a bank. Nowhere, however, did her CV say that she had a degree in software engineering. She had worked on quality control for NHS systems before joining the bank to sort out their software procurement processes. Such a CV would have been the political kiss of death. I later discovered that she had very strong views on the £billions that the Blair Government had spent replacing fragmented systems that worked to the benefit of patients and clinicians by standard systems that supported managerial targets.  She was NOT a proud IT professional. She was an angry systems engineering, procurement and quality control professional.

I recently retired (for the fourth time). I am now on a Safer Neighbourhood Board, setting up a Community Safety Partnership. I see the consequences of widespread on-line abuse, bullying, grooming and fraud, aided and abetted (if not necessarily actively encouraged) by the business models of well known players. Their failure to enforce conditions of service, other than to demand consent for personal information to be sold to strangers, is unforgiveable.  If I were forty years younger and standing for election, I too would not wish to admit to working in IT. I understand the hatred of those funnelling £billions off-shore while failing to “remove” those using their networks and social media to bully and humiliate fellow pupils, control drug operations on inner city estates and along county lines, identify and defraud the elderly and vulnerable … I could go on.

One of the drivers behind the Brexit vote is the way high streets (and jobs) are destroyed by off-shore on-line multinationals who pay tax in Dublin or Luxembourg.  Calls for “freedom of movement” are interpreted differently by those whose wages have been depressed by low skilled immigrants who also compete for housing, medical care and school places.  In my very first blog (2007) I said that the next election was likely to be decided in the 80 constituencies where the knowledge industry jobs at risk from multinational competition were greater than the majority of the incumbent MP.  The next election will be decided in several hundred constituencies where digitally deprived have-nots blame a mix of the EU and the on-line multi-nationals.

I like the Tech UK response to the Doteveryone report but we also need the 80% of optimists to also join the political party of their choice and work to produce policies that will:

  • Address the on-line harms perceived by so many parents and children.
  • Deploy ubiquitous, reliable, full-fibre broadband to deliver socially inclusive life-long learning, at affordable cost, for all.
  • Encourage the use of low cost, networked AI and Robotics to help deliver better, cheaper public services, including personal care, from womb to grave.

The latest Conservative Policy Forum consultation gives one channel. The Labour Digital Policy Competition gives another.  I have handed my work in support of the Digital Policy Alliance Skills Group, to a team at the Open University. I was delighted with their ambition and vision. They also have over 600 constituency MPs to work with, regardless of who wins the next election. Please join the group if you are interested in opportunities to transform our indigenous education and training system and remove the need to rely on immigrant talent.

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