Business, Technology, and Ethics: The Need for Better Conversations

Reading Time: 6 min 



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
More in this series

The following headlines recently appeared in Yahoo! News:

“Apple going to war with Facebook’s web trackers”

“ ‘Detroit: Become Human’ review: Strong characters make your choices matter” (a review of a video survival game about androids)

“Apple has new features to limit your phone addiction”

“How to make sure Russian hackers can’t attack your home router again”

“Facebook investors grill Zuckerberg: ‘Emulate George Washington, not Vladimir Putin’ ”

Headlines like these are now typical — “battles” between tech companies and within tech entertainment, technology addiction, real-life foreign invaders enabled by technology, calls for truth and honesty from tech executives. Merely trying to read the news calls for a moral sophistication that is becoming increasingly difficult.

Things are likely to become more demanding as our technology continues to evolve at an explosive level. At the same time, the civic processes that should encourage innovative solutions to new problems appear to be broken.

The fusion of business, technology, and ethics is, in essence, unfolding at a rate that appears to outstrip our ability as citizens to have meaningful and careful conversations about the effects of our actions on others. What we need is a commitment to honestly talk about the challenges technology now poses.

Troubling Examples from Facebook and Google

Two examples illustrate how the intersection of business, technology, and ethics can be problematic. First, let’s look at Facebook’s recent troubles. The social network sold data to companies that were trying to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It also took money for nearly 3,000 political ads from foreign entities without disclosing who purchased them. The results have been devastating to the company. Many people have closed their accounts, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has had to apologize and defend the company to inquiries from the U.S. Congress and European regulators. It is unclear what the long-term results of these incidents will be for both the company and for Facebook users.

Google faced similar problems, but it had a completely different response. In 2006, Google began operating within the Chinese market under that government’s condition that Google would censor any content that Chinese authorities saw as offensive, such as coverage of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989. But after Chinese hackers began attacking the company and the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, Google reversed its decision to assist the government in suppressing information. Google has since taken a censorship-free approach to the market largely due to the views of its stakeholders, who are mostly in favor of an open internet.

These issues, which are the result of implementation of new technologies, are having profound effects on our society. Indeed, they are having profound effects on our very idea of ourselves.

Five Barriers to the Conversations We Need

We need to have careful, informed, and democratic conversations about how we are going to live with new technologies and how we might mitigate the unintended ill effects that are inevitably going to arise.

Unfortunately, the civic processes that should encourage both good conversations and innovative solutions to new problems appear to be hopelessly mired in partisan politics and other institutional issues. Therefore, we need the institutions that are in the middle of these issues to lead these conversations — namely, our tech businesses, our schools of business and engineering, and at least some of our political institutions.

Doing so won’t be easy. We need to overcome at least five barriers to facilitate the kinds of conversations we need to have.

First, in universities, many professors don’t want to stray from their comfort zones. They are hesitant to connect the dots between exciting technological advances and the ethical problems they invariably raise. For instance, we can predict the overall safety of a world with autonomous vehicles, but we also have to figure out how to solve some of the ethical issues such as whether a car should be programmed to protect its occupants or pedestrians. Ethicists recognize this issue as a version of the “trolley problem,” a most difficult moral problem.

Second, there are misunderstandings and disagreements about ethics issues among many people. We are increasingly facing issues that make basic principles of interaction either moot or in dire need of revision. One of the best illustrations is our idea about property. We think of property as stuff. This computer is mine, not yours, and I can determine how it is used. But when much property is digitized as a string of 0’s and 1’s, then this “stuff” theory begins to break down. The idea of “intellectual property” is fraught with difficulty in a world where reproducing and “stealing” it is so easy. This results in serious differences of opinion about what counts as “property” and “ownership” and even “stealing” (this is best illustrated in the maxim, “Information wants to be free”). We need new thinking that keeps the good things about the old idea of property and also allows for the advantages of the digital world — without giving in to a complete loss of control due to costless copying. 3-D printing will only increase the urgency of this issue.

Third, we have a misunderstanding about business. Business is not just about money and profits. It is about creating value for customers, suppliers, employees, communities, and financiers.

Fourth, likewise, technology isn’t just gadgets and things. Technology is best understood as a tool that enables (or prevents) human flourishing. Medical technology, such as the artificial joints developed in part by British doctor Sir John Charnley, alleviates much suffering and allows recipients to lead productive lives. But technology always has unpredictable consequences. The first artificial hips dislocated too easily and had to be changed. More subtly, these tools can change how we think of ourselves and our relationships with others. Going from a life of constant pain to being able to walk again pain-free thanks to a double hip replacement, technology helps us cope with the world we live in and changes how a person encounters the rest of life. We need to be engaged in an ongoing conversation about these effects, the good and the not so good ones, and how we can best handle them.

Fifth, we have a public policy process — especially in the U.S. — that seems to be committed to misunderstanding the intersection of business, technology, and ethics. Streaming music has become the dominant way that most people listen to music. It is enormously convenient and inexpensive — truly a breakthrough technology. However, songwriters are still paid under consent decrees signed in Congress in 1941, long before there was an internet. The result is that it is very difficult for songwriters to make a living in an age of nearly cost-free music streaming. There is currently a debate about changing this institution for a more modern one that is more aligned with technology.

A Way Forward

We need to do at least four things to move past these barriers:

  • We need to include children in these conversations. We need to be talking more explicitly about the nature of business, technology, and ethics, and we need to begin those conversations in our schools at the K-12 level. Progress on this point can help ensure that our children have a much better understanding of these forces that will dramatically affect their lives.
  • We need mandatory courses in engineering and business schools about these challenges. Grad students need to be analyzing how business, technology, and ethics are connected through the examination of real cases and issues.
  • We need leading-edge companies to take the lead. Silicon Valley companies need to put ethics at the center of what they are doing, and they need to connect it to both their gee-whiz technologies and their business models.
  • We need innovative public policy processes that have sophistication in technology, business, and ethics. Society needs a creative revolution of ideas that gives us new models of how business, technology, and ethics can be connected.

All these things need to be enacted to make a world worth living in for our children.



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
More in this series

More Like This

Add a comment

You must to post a comment.

First time here? Sign up for a free account: Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.