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Opinion and Editorial

Big Tech and human values

Shalini Verma
Filed on June 25, 2020

It is particularly challenging to think about values in difficult economic conditions, when cash conservation is top of mind

"The unexamined life is not worth living," declared the Greek philosopher Socrates to the jury that had sentenced him to death.
Time and again, human tragedy forces us to re-examine our value system. The death of George Floyd drove America to the edge as protestors poured onto the streets ignoring the risk of getting exposed to coronavirus. The ensuing mayhem exposed the depth of public outrage against racism.
This forced businesses to express solidarity with the protestors and recalibrate their value system. This compulsion has been triggered by customers and employees who are scrutinising the moral disposition of companies. The suicide by Indian film actor Sushant Singh Rajput caused an online backlash. Outraged fans who believed that he was bullied by film production houses, started online movements to boycott their films.
Millennials and Gen Z, in particular, expect companies they buy from and work for to not just demonstrate strong values but also take a stand on social issues. Ice cream company Ben & Jerry's has understood the value of supporting progressive movements. It often launches issue-based flavours like 'Save Our Swirled' in support of climate action.
While large companies are under public scrutiny, technology companies are especially feeling the heat. Why? Because Tech being at the cutting edge of ideas but lagging in values feels like anachronism. A certain idealism to change the world is associated with tech innovation - why their employees hold them to a higher standard. Facebook employees organised a virtual walkout to protest against the management decision to not take down US President Donald Trump's controversial post on the antiracism protests.
As the anger against systemic racism raged on the streets of America, Tech joined the protest. Netflix announced that to be silent is to be complicit. Youtube's CEO Susan Wojcicki called for dismantling systemic racism. Microsoft's Satya Nadella spoke about embedding empathy in businesses. Twitter added a Black Lives Matter tribute on its official Twitter bio. Its CEO Jack Dorsey pledged $3 million to the anti-racism organisation founded by Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who had kneeled during the national anthem before an NFL game.
A tweet or a contribution by the CEO was not enough. So, tech companies announced steps to review their policies. The values are a sum total of not just the product offering but also how its organisation sources, hires, and operates. Many of their pledges smell like PR exercises because their core business - their products - belie such well-intentioned declaration. For tech companies, it boils down to how its technology steps up to help society.
Only a handful of companies have reviewed their products. IBM, for instance, abandoned its research on facial recognition technology because of racial bias in the algorithm. Amazon put a temporary ban on the use of its facial recognition technology by police departments. These are baby steps.
Tech companies were earlier agnostic in the interest of freedom of expression. They built business models on the online war of words, with algorithms that aggravated polarisation. It's tough to walk away from such a thriving business. Facebook's integrity team reported that its algorithm increased the influence of 'super-sharers' who tended to be 'aggressively partisan'. Facebook's management was unable to take a moral stand and ignored the recommendations.
The challenge in building a virtuous algorithm or product is that it ceases to be neutral and is bound to antagonise a customer segment. When a Google employee sent a vitriolic email against female employees, Google took swift corrective action because it was dealing with one individual. But taking a stand against an entire segment of society is not easy.
Values are also a moving target and keep evolving. In ancient Greece, courage, moderation, and justice were the key virtues. Today, the spotlight is on saving the planet and inclusiveness. Tomorrow there will be new ones. It is particularly challenging to think about values in difficult economic conditions, when cash conservation is top of mind.
Yet, Tech never operates in a vacuum. It always mirrors shifts in society. The hippie movement in America shaped technology companies like Apple. Technology companies must support responsible behaviour by focusing on fundamental human goodness. Everyone is watching their actions behind their words.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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