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Ethics in technology – should I care?

Why are ethics so important and why should the technology industry, in particular, give the subject special attention? In this blog series, we explore the link between ethics and technology.

Carina Wiman / July 08, 2020

IT is playing an increasingly fundamental role in people’s lives and society as a whole. The technology we surround ourselves with has evolved, from time-saving or simplifying tools to expressions of our identity and behaviour. As the speed of innovation increases, the impact these innovations have on society grows.

On a personal level, ethics can also be a difficult subject. Most people inwardly reflect on the moral consequences of what they do, but at the same time, those consequences are rarely discussed out loud. This is especially true in the working environment.

Most companies have a Code of Conduct, which gives guidance to employees on what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. In addition, many companies have guidance on how to conduct business ethically, such as choosing the right suppliers and how to avoid unethical business practices.

Obviously, it is a good thing to have these practices in place, but more should be done to breathe life into these corporate-level entitles and bring ethics to a place where solutions are designed, coded and delivered. 

In the past few years, we have seen some examples of poor ethics in the development and deployment of technologies. Social media applications, which were intended to be platforms for sharing positive experiences, have been shown to undermine democratic processes. Further, we’ve seen the world’s biggest social media platform sell the personal data of 50 million users without their consent.

Another development is what could be called grassroots ethics, which sees employees speaking up and, in some cases walking out when their employer does something unethical. This is very encouraging because if there is a frontline in the battle between ethics and business, it’s not in the boardroom but on the team’s own whiteboard.

Ethical mistakes are typically oversights

A great thing about humanity is that there are, in fact, very few teams in the technology industry who intentionally set out to build something unethical. If a product or service is unethical, it’s typically due to oversight, accident or ignorance. It’s not a deliberate attempt to make something unethical, but rather that ethics never really entered the creative process.

And that’s not surprising. For a digital solution to be successful in 2020, you need to navigate through increasing customer needs and stressed business targets to satisfy a lot of demands: 

  • It has to be satisfying a need or no one will buy it. 
  • It has to have a fantastic user experience or users will migrate to a competing product. 
  • It has to have a robust technical architecture or the cost of development over time will be crippling. 
  • There has to be a solid business case, including a realistic return on investment and profitability. 
  • All national and supranational legislation needs to be understood and adhered to. 

In this hectic space, it is very difficult for a team member to raise their hand and say: ‘Stop! Just what is this thing we are developing and what consequences will it have?’  

That’s how ethics gets pushed aside. That is how a well-meaning team accidentally develops the perfect tool to facilitate cyberbullying. They didn’t set out to do it, it was just that safeguarding against it never became a priority.

Today, ethics are not high enough on the agenda and not given the attention they deserve. When they do get attention, they are too easily cast aside in favour of other, more prioritised, goals. The tech industry (including both suppliers and customers) needs to learn new ways and new routines to manage the rising ethical challenges, in a way that doesn’t stifle innovation or slow growth.

Ethics need to be considered when you have a decision to make that will impact the lives of many people. This could be a decision related to city planning, national legislation or, to take a more recent example, the restrictions placed on society as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. As mentioned earlier, technology has developed quickly and is now an integral part of most people's life – either directly or indirectly.

So, how can we consider ethics as a key topic when we develop new solutions? We offer concrete tips and tricks in our next blog. Stay tuned and join the discussion on social media!

Carina Wiman
Head of Business Development, d|lab, TietoEVRY Norway

Carina has worked within IT for the past 20 years in several different roles and branches, always with the focus to drive change and innovation. She believes in the positive effects digitalisation can have and how digitalisation can benefit people and society.

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Carina Wiman

Head of Business Development, d|lab, TietoEVRY Norway

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