Achieving “technology for good” in business practice is more complicated than it might seem at first glance. Patrick Hinton, Warwick Business School Runner-up in the 2021 CoBS CSR article competition, MBA and member of the military, takes a long, hard look at the checklist to bear in mind to make Tech4Good happen
Never Assume: The pursuit of “technology for good” by Patrick Hinton.
The bow wave
The Covid-19 pandemic has provided a windfall for technology. National lockdowns and travel bans forced the embrace of videoconferencing and virtual classrooms. As stay-at-home orders spread around the globe, time spent online skyrocketed. Loved ones were physically separate but able to share experiences via the internet.
People loved, laughed, and lost through the webcam’s all-seeing aperture. Businesses adopted novel ways of working, procuring, and delivering. Second-order effects saw commutes disappear and their associated pollution collapse. Likewise, technology has played a vital role in the fight against the virus. Complex models aided governments in planning their responses and facilitated the rapid hunt for an effective vaccine. Consequently, it helped the swift dissemination of doses around the globe.
These developments sound like a resounding success for the “technology for good” movement, which strives for positive social outcomes derived from technical developments. Nevertheless, the vast benefits of this revolution have been met with a more insidious force. Achieving “technology for good” in business practice is more complicated than it might seem at first glance.
The dark side
Technology is not neutral. It is brought into being by designers and engineers, each of whom has different outlooks, perspectives, and frames through which they operate. Some questionable behaviour on Zoom calls might be overlooked as quaint. However, inequities are reinforced by technology presumed to be an ambivalent, or even positive, force.
Machinery and software should provide support and ease menial tasks, freeing people to focus on creativity and positive outputs. It should not hold employees to an unrealistic standard or reduce them to mere cogs in a machine. Using technology to limit lavatory breaks and enforce a relentless working pace does not enhance social good. Such policies increase stress and reduce well-being. An insatiable profit motive undermines the paradigm of “technology for good”.
For example, the gig economy is a regularly cited arena where technology rules with an iron fist. Workers are at the whim of the algorithm, sacrificing all control. Recognising the difference between using “technology for good” in a very narrow sense versus a broader, holistic, and wholesome good is crucial. The measures mentioned above no doubt help managers with revenue and productivity targets. From that viewpoint, technology is being used for a positive end.
Perspective plays a significant role in this arena. All these technologies profess to support a positive outcome. In a way, that is correct. These protocols appear to enhance some facet of life or business. Nevertheless, it is necessary for businesses, technology officers, and general managers to look through a broader lens to identify their route to good.
The route to good
Adopting a “technology for good” strategy requires seeing beyond the dominant narrative surrounding an innovation or new purchase. The path of least resistance is rarely one that will prove beneficial in a broad sense. March 2021 saw 150,000 security cameras in schools, hospitals, and prisons accessed by a group of hackers . The camera manufacturer had focused on one output, providing video coverage while neglecting to consider the chance of a security breach. Equally, Cambridge Analytica exploited low barriers to entry whilst hoovering up millions of people’s personal details on the coattails of a popular Facebook quiz game.
Firms should dedicate personnel and resources to ensuring that the technology they employ has a net positive outcome. Computer-generated images offer many benefits, but deep faked politicians can undermine democratic process. Equally, commentators herald the end of driving jobs as autonomous transport develops, causing labour market upheaval. Moreover, social media was designed for wholesome relationships, yet now requires armies of moderators to manage violent and illegal content. Technology will never publicise itself as having a negative effect. It will not bring attention to itself as causing harm. As such, it is essential to ask questions over and above a technology’s principal utility.
Look behind the curtain
Many companies have bought software to help them sift through resumés. Ostensibly, they help sort the wheat from the chaff and save human resources departments time. The software has been trained on data sets and can be given parameters to ensure only qualified candidates get to the next stage. However, this software can suffer from unconscious bias. Amazon stopped using one such tool when it was shown to discriminate against women .
Equally, the perils of social media have been recounted in much detail, from the unauthorised sharing of personal information and bullying, through to fake news and improper election influence. People can share experiences and ask for advice, obtaining instant feedback. At the same time, such channels are employed for bullying and harassment of the most severe kind. Companies employ instant message like Slack and Skype in order to provide frictionless communication. However, as Georgetown University professor Cal Newport notes, incessant notification and distraction can undermine any productivity gains, resulting in a net loss .
This concept is crucial when considering technology as a social good. New technologies come with costs and benefits. Data centres allow for the storage and processing of immense volumes of information. However, their energy usage is astronomical, with some quantifying it at one per cent of global power consumption . The benefits and costs should be quantified and justified. This may require indirect solutions such as carbon offsetting for crucial protocols which are not yet energy efficient.
Trying to quantify the abstract, and potentially qualitative, costs and benefits of new technology may strike fear into the hearts of analysts and managers alike. However, one does not need to be a programmer or computer scientist to get a holistic perspective on the potential implementation of technology in a business. A simple question set can reveal a surprising amount of helpful information.
Ask questions like an idiot
The 5Ws & H – who, what, when, where, why, and how – are trusted companions when trying to get to the bottom of an issue. Sometimes known as the ‘idiot questions’, their utility is significant. Used by journalists and law enforcement professionals, the inquiries can also support the pursuit of “technology for good” in business. Managers looking to employ a new technology should use these simple questions to dig into the weeds around its primary use. Who is benefitting from the implementation? What blind spots might there be? When should it be implemented? From where is it best managed? Why is this software suitable for the company? How will the local community be affected?
It will not feel natural to be so interrogative, but paying a little attention before implementation will pay dividends. This exercise can be done on an extravagant spreadsheet or simply an A4 piece of paper. Likewise, incorporating the opinion of a wide variety of stakeholders will help illustrate the potential for both positive and negative outcomes.
Nicholas Taleb’s 2018 book, Skin in the Game, offers a valuable thesis . Taleb believes that if people pay no penalty when a decision goes wrong, there is little incentive to ensure a positive outcome. Decision-makers should canvas a wide variety of opinion to help prevent unintended consequences. This will broaden the considerations taken when developing or implementing new technology. What becomes apparent when forging such a path is that there will be no clear-cut answer.
Categorising a technology as good or bad does not do justice to the ambiguity of reality. Much has been discussed of the work from home revolution precipitated by the pandemic. Working from home means more time with children, less money on rail fares, and embrace a new agility in the workday. That said, there are those who need physical human interaction to thrive.
Moreover, the office can provide a haven from domestic tensions. Working from home is associated with isolation and loneliness for some people. Considering these nuances will enhance a business’ ability to use “technology for good”. Businesses and managers should account for and promote how their different business units can employ technology. For example, any company with a geographic dispersion should take care to account for local variations. This being said, and despite the best intentions, it is not always possible to plan for every eventuality.
Be prepared to change course
Be pragmatic. After the implementation of a new piece of technology, it may become apparent that the areas discussed above come to fruition. There may be unintended consequences. It might prove impractical to employ a new technology positively. Modern narratives of political and business U-turns make people fearful of changing their mind when new information presents itself. Seeking to employ “technology for good” is a favourable target for businesses.
Covid-19 has acted as a catalyst for the adoption of new practices, often supported by novel practices. Finding an effective way of employing technology requires businesses to look beyond the sales pitch and involve all stakeholders in procurement and implementation decisions. Finally, if a new adoption does not meet the criteria discussed above, and a net social loss is apparent, businesses and managers must feel confident enough to change course.
- 1 Turton, W., ‘Hackers Breach Thousands of Security Cameras, Exposing Tesla, Jails, Hospitals’, Bloomberg, 9 March 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-09/hackers-expose-tesla-jails-in-breach-of-150-000-security-cams, (accessed on 15 March 2021).
- 2 Dastin, J., ‘Amazon scraps secret AI recruiting tool that showed bias against women’, Reuters, 11 October 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-amazon-com-jobs-automation-insight-idUSKCN1MK08G, (accessed on 26 March 2021).
- 3 Park, W., ‘How to escape the ‘hyperactive hivemind’ of modern work’, BBC, 15 July 2019, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20190715-how-to-escape-the-hyperactive-hivemind-of-modern-work, (accessed on 25 March 2021).
- 4 Ratka S. & Boshell F., ‘The nexus between data centres, efficiency and renewables: a role model for the energy transition’, Energypost.eu, 26 June 2020, https://energypost.eu/the-nexus-between-data-centres-efficiency-and-renewables-a-role-model-for-the-energy-transition, (accessed on 24 March 2021).
- 5 Taleb, N., Skin in the Game, (London: Allen Lane, 2018).
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