We’re not supposed to talk about three topics in business: sex, religion and politics. Religion and sex, Ok, but politics is unavoidable. What is politics? It is defined as the process of decision making as it applies to members of a group. Usually we then think of government on various levels, such as municipality, state or federal government.
(Within organizations we discuss politics too, but then more in terms of creating and maintaining power, position and status. My colleague Tina Nunno likes to point out that it is better to see politics as a neutral force in business: the ability to handle conflict. But these are topics for another place and time).
Business, society and politics are inextricably linked. Businesses make use of societal infrastructure, that is governed by politics. Public sector is being paid out of the wealth created by business, something that society profits from as a whole.
Let’s zoom in on the role of technology. The decisions we take about technology do not only have business consequences, but increasingly also affect society and politics. Technology and politics are two of a kind.
Politics are technological. People create stuff. Think of railroads, highways or walls. Or think of monitoring people through cctv cameras and drones. But also publishing open data, cyberwarfare, or comprehensive systems such as China’s social credit score.
Technology is also political. You can’t really create scenarios around mass implementation of artificial intelligence without thinking of distribution of wealth, shifting income tax to productivity tax and ideas such as universal basic income. Big data required new privacy regulations. 3D printing likewise.
Algorithms in social media influence what we see, and with that affect elections. We think about which technology companies are strategic in nature, and that are not allowed to be acquired by foreign companies. Net neutrality is a topic. President Putin of Russia recently claimed that the country that would lead in AI, would rule the world.
Engineers in various technology companies have written memos to their management in which they acknowledge that technology isn’t ethically neutral, that they don’t want it to be used for certain causes.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) already figured it out when describing the four causes, and in particular in what he called the “final cause”: what is it that you are trying to achieve. In contemporary terms: every artefact is an instantiation of the ideas of the designer; what the designer deems to be “good”. And if you have a chance, please read the following paper: “Do Artifacts Have Politics” by Langdon Winner (https://www.cc.gatech.edu/~beki/cs4001/Winner.pdf). It’s been criticized, but it is intriguing.
The world around us is polarizing. In terms of renewed nationalism like Brexit, in terms of platforms that seem to exclude each other, and in terms of different cultures that define what is appropriate and unappropriate use of technology.
Technology is political.
If, as a business, we think of what we will do with technology, we will have to discuss politics. Better than to avoid the topic, it is to be aware of the political connotations of the positions we take, and its consequences.
Frank Buytendijk (@FrankBuytendijk) is a Research Fellow bij Gartner Research & Advisory. He pioneers in the field of digital philosophy and ethics, the #digitalsociety and futures impact.