Ethics, technology and the impact of our decisions on customers and employees – Interview with Cennydd Bowles

Ethics

Today’s interview is with Cennydd Bowles, a designer and writer focusing on the ethics of emerging technologies. Cennydd joins me today to talk about ethics, technology, emerging technology, design and the impact of the decisions we make on customers and employees.

This interview follows on from my recent interview – The Age Of Agile and why agile is more than a tool or method – Interview with Steve Denning – and is number 251 in the series of interviews with authors and business leaders that are doing great things, providing valuable insights, helping businesses innovate and delivering great service and experience to both their customers and their employees.

Highlights from my conversation with Cennydd:

  • The need for us to explore the ethical use and application of emerging technologies is becoming fairly obvious.
  • Cennydd is working on a new writing project/book to further this discussion called Future Ethics: Responsible Technology For the Connected Age and is due out mid-2018.
  • Some of the big challenges that we see emerging include things like:
    • Algorithmic bias,
    • Privacy concerns, particularly with the advent of advanced facial recognition and lip reading technology,
    • Persuasion ethics and how we are on the verge of entering a ‘hyper-nudge’ era where the technological prompts that we receive become almost impossible to resist,
    • Sustainability concerns around bitcoin technology,
    • The overall economic impact of new technology and the future of work, and
    • Robot rights and autonomous military technology.
  • The topic of ethics often feels a little abstract.
  • However, the ethical dimensions of the decisions that companies now make are starting to have a more visible consumer effect.
  • That is starting to manifest itself in terms of brand toxicity and there are quite a few brands, particular in the tech industry, that are starting to be viewed as being ‘toxic’.
  • This is being driven, in large part, by customers who are much more able to collectively organise themselves such that they are able to put pressure on brands to change marketing spend or amend certain decisions.
  • This is twinned with employee concerns and the rising trend that many employees, particularly millenials, are increasing looking to align themselves with and work for companies that operate in an ethical way.
  • 50% of millennials would rather work doing something purposeful than be in a position that offers a high salary.
  • This is proving tricky for firms as employees can become ‘political’ within organisations. Cennydd cites the recent example of Virgin Trains and The Daily Mail in the UK. Click here for an overview.
  • Libertarian paternalism is the idea that it is both possible and legitimate for private and public institutions to affect behaviour while also respecting freedom of choice, as well as the implementation of that idea. This is a central aspect of Nudge Theory.
  • Is it right that ‘we’ should decide what is in other peoples best interest?
  • If so, is there a danger than we become technocrats rather than democrats?
  • To do ethics right, we should be involving people in the design and product development process.
  • Cennydd’s book (Future Ethics: Responsible Technology For the Connected Age that is due out later this year) is aimed at people working in technology (product managers, entrepreneurs, designers etc).
  • It’s not gong to be an ethics handbook as that just wouldn’t work. It’s aim is to get people to engage with the ethical complexities of some of the issues that they are facing and also provide them with some tools to help solve some of these issues.
  • This is not about rejecting many of these new technologies and methods but is rather about being more conscious in how we are using them and to what end.
  • The best first step leaders and execs wrestling with some of these issues is to broaden their perspective on who a stakeholder is so they can have a better grasp on what unintended consequences could come about as a result of the use of their product/service (e.g. Facebook news feed and the impact on democracy) and how they should be responding to, managing or avoiding them.
  • This brings to mind the old saying: “Plans are useless but the act of planning is invaluable”.
  • The people that are excellent at this type of activity are those with a humanities background as they have been trained to seek out and understand the social impact of all sorts of events and new technologies.
  • There are signs that companies from Silicon Valley and other tech players are starting to hire more people with these sorts of backgrounds.
  • One great example of a firm that is getting ahead in this respect is Jamf.
  • When you combine people from technical and scientific backgrounds with folks from the ‘ologies’ and ‘osophies’ then those teams can be unstoppable.
  • Cennydd cites a few firms that he says are getting it right in ‘local maxima’:
    • Apple on privacy, where they are very hot on data and privacy. But, their approach does benefit their business model.
    • Lush are responding very well to the political nature of things and are a nakedly political business that stands for certain things.
    • Uber is in danger of becoming, if they are not already, a toxic brand. But, their new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, seems to be intent on turning things around and is starting to get the company to act in a more conscious and ethical way.
  • What’s interesting is that Cennydd struggles to point to any one company in the tech industry that is strong in all areas.
  • However, that is not a surprise as this is still an emergent area and many have to balance ethical concerns with commercial imperatives.
  • Three bits of advice from Cennydd:
    • Your culture is so important. Make sure you are not building a culture that rewards unethical behaviour.
    • You need to start talking about ethics as an ongoing and complex issue. Leaders should start by openly talking about the trade offs and compromises that they are having to make.
    • You need to encourage employee involvement in all of that. One way to do that would be to consider setting up an ethics panel that is staffed by employees.
  • Ethics shouldn’t be seen just as applying restraint or constraints. When reframed it can be used as a catalyst for innovative thinking.
  • Necessity is the mother of all invention.
  • Constraints don’t stifle design, they foster design. The worst thing you can do to a designer is give them a blank sheet of paper.
  • Within the ethical debate there is also an absolute need for diversity as a diverse teams are much more likely to be more attuned to the potential dangers of the things you are likely to ‘ship’.
  • Investing in diversity has all sorts of benefits but it also has an ethical benefit too.
  • Keep an eye out for Cennydd’s book (Future Ethics: Responsible Technology For the Connected Age) which should be due out in the summer time (UK).
  • And, do sign up for his new newsletter: Now/Next at tinyletter.com/cennydd, which is described as “Short, curious letters on emerging technology and design. // Ethics, culture, and implausible speculation whenever the mood strikes. Fortnightly at most.”

About Cennydd

Cennydd Bowles is a designer and writer focusing on the ethics of emerging technologies. He has worked with companies including Twitter, Ford, Samsung, and WWF, and is a sought-after speaker at technology events across the globe.

His writing about design and technology includes bylines for The Design Council, net magazine, and A List Apart. His first book, the popular Undercover User Experience Design, was published in 2010; he has since contributed to, edited, and reviewed many more.

Cennydd’s views on technology and ethics have been quoted in The Daily Telegraph, Ars Technica, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Forbes, Boing Boing, The UAE National, and The Guardian’s Tech Weekly show.

Keep an eye out for Cennydd’s book (Future Ethics: Responsible Technology For the Connected Age) which should be due out sometime near summer time in the UK. Check out his new newsletter: Now/Next at tinyletter.com/cennydd, say Hi to him on Twitter @cennydd and connect with him on LinkedIn here.

Thanks to Pixabay for the image.

 

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