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Digital Ethics

by Frank Buytendijk  |  September 2, 2016  |  Comments Off on Digital Ethics

With the best of intentions I am finally starting my blog. On digital ethics, the relationship between people and technology, and more philosophical matters. Don’t worry! It won’t be airy-fairy. It won’t be pie-in-the-sky. It will be practical and current. Ok, with the occasional reference to a dead Greek.

Practical and current. Because everytime when technology innovation is going faster than we can grasp as people, business and society, at one moment the question of ethics will come up. What are the consequences of new digital technologies? Is it Ok that these developments seems to be almost autonomous? Shouldn’t there be some kind of parental guidance to innovation?

I think we can all agree we’re in the middle of it. The race for autonomous cars is speeding up, before we knew it the discussion around big data and privacy quieted down as is now filed under the “T” of “too little, too late”, and we never even discussed the impact of smart phones and social media on interpersonal communications before it was too late.

We need ethical debate.

The problem is that we’re not really used to that anymore. Many of us grew up in a business environment in which we learned that business is amoral. Not immoral, but amoral. As they say, the market is ruled by supply and demand, and we organize ourselves as efficiently and effectively accordingly.

But that’s a non-sustainable position. Even if we truly believe business is amoral, it is an irrelevant belief. Business is being viewed, let me take that back, is being judged through a moral lense by society. Newspapers write about concerns on how businesses and governments use technology on a daily basis. The annual Edelman Trust barometer is dangerously low. We trust business and governments less and less. Trust is important in business. But trust is not an amoral term, it is a key ethical construct.

Some companies understand that very well, and make privacy their core value proposition to the market. Apple Pay, for instance, doesn’t even store other information than needed for conducting a transaction, like it was cash. Apple is in the technology business, not the information business.

And navigation company TomTom adopted the “privacy by design” principles. In contrast to Google and other providers of navigation information, TomTom is not in there to collect the most user information, TomTom is there to bring you from A to B in a private way. There simply is no information that makes people personal identifiable beyond what is needed for the core service. Security is a key concern. And as a customer you have full access in your profile. Principles every company should embrace.

In the words of TomTom, they don’t see it as their big data, but are merely managing information in the name of the customer. That’s not a legal stance, but a moral and practical position.

If businesses start to think about digital ethics, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon environments, often the focus is on compliance. A system of checks and balances to ensure that the regularory requirements are met. But that’s not ethics. Ethics is something very different. Ethics is about what you think is the right thing to do. For your stakeholders, and for yourself.

From here it is a small step to seeing ethics as having a clear view of what value you create, communicate and deliver. A core business questions, nothing else.

Category: analytics  big-data  digital-ethics  information-management  innovation  

Frank Buytendijk
Research VP & Fellow
10 years at Gartner
23 years IT Industry

Frank Buytendijk is a Gartner Research VP & Fellow, covering digital ethics and data & analytics. Read Full Bio




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