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Digital ethics will only catch on if we change our conversations

  • Posted on December 18, 2019
  • Estimated reading time 4 minutes
digital ethics

Making digital ethics part of our story
In life and work, we associate with each other by telling stories about who we are, what we care about, what we’ve accomplished, and what we hope for. As we embed technology deeper into every aspect of our lives, those of us in tech professions should talk more often about our collective legacy. Are we building systems that we can trust to not marginalize individuals, harm society, or damage the planet?

We should ask hypothetical data ethics questions in job interviews, include accessibility metrics in our application performance dashboards, discuss mental health implications in user experience design workshops, and provide users with easy communication channels to raise any ethical concerns they have. We should constantly strive for inclusion and diversity to make sure the stories we tell represent as many voices as possible, and we should be transparent about our technology decisions, so the stakeholders who contribute and are affected by our products can choose whether to invest their precious time and money.

After more than 12 years tracking ethics, compliance, and risk management disciplines as an industry analyst, I came to Avanade to help clients around the world turn complex ideas about digital ethics into real, positive change. Avanade had already shown great corporate vision and thought leadership on digital ethics, and I’m fortunate to be in a position to build on so much existing work. But for us – all of us in the industry – to get digital ethics right, we must articulate 1) What it means to practice digital ethics, and 2) Why it’s an important endeavor.

What it means to practice digital ethics
First, we should acknowledge that any technology has ethical implications. Privacy and ethical AI happen to be getting a lot of attention right now, but we should consider all of the potential ethical ramifications of every technology product and project, including impacts on people (privacy, accessibility, inclusivity, mental/physical health, financial health, etc.), society (politics, education, workforce, economy, law enforcement, military, etc.) and environment (energy, materials, pollution, waste, etc.). Throughout the product lifecycle, we should be continually asking: Who or what touches this technology? Who or what might it affect? How can we make sure those effects are ethically sound?

To accomplish this, we should incorporate ethics into existing governance structures and processes, just as we do with security, compliance, and quality. At every stage of the product lifecycle, we should review the relevant ethical categories described above and make decisions to reduce potential harm and aim for fair, positive outcomes for all stakeholders. These decisions won’t be easy, but unless we talk through them, we’ll continue to ignore significant issues. And thankfully, government, academic, and industry groups are publishing guidelines that can serve as a helpful starting point for nearly any ethical question we might have. (Much more on this to come, but check out these examples covering ethical AI, privacy, digital accessibility, child safety, digital surveillance, online journalism, and electronic waste.

There will, of course, be gaps in industry frameworks and best practices, which will require us to have tough conversations about how our technology decisions best align with our corporate values. This is a good time to remember that none of these conversations or decisions should be restricted to just the IT organization. Human resources, customer experience, operations, marketing, the executive team and the board should all play a role. 

As you consider your own story of involvement in digital ethics, look for important and upcoming tech projects in your organization and start a conversation about their ethical implications. Have you considered all the possible personal, societal, and environmental ramifications? Can you find the right motivation to get more people involved to make positive changes?

For my part, I’ll be publishing blog posts and points of view continually to keep the story moving forward as I engage with colleagues and clients. Please feel free to join the conversation and add questions, comments, concerns, or examples of your own in the comment section below.

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