Technology Shifts Create Digital Ethics Dilemmas

By Vasant Raval

Today’s powerful businesses are built to fully leverage information technology to create wealth. This is a dramatic shift from even 30 years ago, when material goods—not knowledge or information intelligence—was considered to be the primary stock-in-trade.

Recently, technology-savvy Tesla moved ahead of General Motors in market cap valuation, while Apple’s market cap exceeds the wealth of many nations around the world. The size in economic terms, combined with the pace of growth, puts these new businesses in a very different space—a space where accountability for doing the right thing rests.

General Motors sells vehicles, not “eyeballs.” The underlying processes at General Motors end as the vehicles roll out of its assembly line—that is, the company has no direct influence on its users (customers or, for technology-driven businesses, subscribers or patrons).

In contrast, Apple and Samsung sell mobile phones, but more importantly, they control the launch of software apps that influence the phone users. Daily, there are numerous tweaks made to the apps; new apps are added and current ones are “improved” to keep the user more glued to his or her phone.

This generates addictive or anxiety-prone behaviors that may not be healthy for the phone users. What matters for the phone company is the number of active eyeballs and their persistent use every time they log in. This is what procures the revenue stream from onboarding the marketing of other products and services over the phone. Except for the strong-willed, it has become very difficult for most users to unhook from their phones, even temporarily.

Interestingly, in car buying, the experience of one buyer does not automatically extend to others, but digital communication devices create a social network of people on a common platform. This, in turn, unleashes a powerful glue that binds communities interested in political, social or cultural exchange of thoughts, which could create a force of its own, such as a rally for a cause.

When more users come together on the technology provided by a business, more power is placed in the hands of the business that dynamically controls and steers processes for social interchange over the network. Members of a network influence each other to create habits that could challenge their will to control themselves. For example, one could be irresistibly anxious to check how many “likes” he or she has received on a Facebook post.

In the pre-internet era, social networks were constrained by geographic limitations. No more. Now, the networks cut across the globe and scale rapidly. Thus, the groups that Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple can steer in a subtle manner are enormous. Fake news, for example, could not have been disseminated to the masses in the past, but now it can in a matter of seconds. And hackers never had as much capacity to do damage as they do today.