Ethics in the tech industry is an issue that’s drawing a lot of attention from policy makers and business leaders alike. But the opinions of the people who actually work in tech have, for a long time, been absent from the conversation. However, UK-based think tank Doteveryone are working hard to change that.
In a report published today – People Power and Technology: The Tech Workers’ View – the think tank sheds light on tech workers’ perspectives on the impact of their work on society. It suggests that not only that there are significant tensions between the people who do the work, and the people they’re working for, but also that much of the tech workforce would welcome more regulation and support within the tech industry.
Backed by responses from more than 1,000 tech workers, the Doteveryone report unearthed some interesting trends:
- 18% of respondents has left their job because they felt uncomfortable about the ethics of certain ethical decisions.
- 45% of respondents said they thought there was too little regulation of tech (14% said there was too much).
- Those working in artificial intelligence had more experience or a more acute awareness of ethical issues – 27% of respondents said they had left their job as a consequence of a decision (compared with 18% overall).
What are the biggest ethical challenges for tech workers, according to Doteveryone?
Respondents to the survey were concerned about a wide range of issues. Many of these are ones that have been well-documented over the last year or so, but the report nevertheless demonstrates how those closest to the technology that’s driving significant – and potentially negative – change see those issues.
One respondent quoted in the survey mentioned the issue of testing – something that often gets missed in broad and abstract conversations about privacy and automation. They said that their product “was not properly tested, and the company was too quick” to put it on the market.
Elsewhere, another respondent discussed a problem with the metrics being chased by software companies, where clicks and usage are paramount. “Some features tend to be addictive,” they said.
Other respondents mentioned “the exploitation of personal data” and “mass unemployment,” indicating that even those at the center of the tech industry harbour serious concerns about the impact of technology on society.
However, one of the most interesting was one that we have discussed a lot – the importance of communication. “Too much technology less communication [sic] between people,” said one respondent. In a nutshell, that seems to encapsulate Doteveryone’s overall mission – a greater focus on the human element of technology, and resisting the seductions of technological solutionism.
How the absence of an ethical framework could cause brain drain in the U.K. tech sector
The Doteveryone report points out that the challenges tech workers face, and the level of discomfort they feel in their respective jobs could lead to retention problems across the industry.
The report states:
The UK tech industry has major concerns about the availability of staff. 93% of employers have struggled to recruit to tech roles in the past year, with shortages most acute for management and experienced professionals. Brexit is expected to exacerbate these issues. Each lost tech worker is estimated to cost a company over £30,000. Our findings show that potentially irresponsible technology practices are a significant factor for retention and it’s vital that these are addressed for the industry to thrive.
The key takeaway, then, is that the instability and pressure that comes with working in a job or industry where innovation is everything requires a frameworks and support mechanisms. Without them, the people actually doing the work in tech will not only find it harder to work responsibly, it will also take its toll on them personally.
With issues around burnout in the tech industry stealing the headlines in recent months (think about the protests around China’s 996 culture) this confirms the importance of working together to develop new ways of supporting and protecting each other.
How tech workers are currently negotiating ethics
The report finds that the when negotiating ethical issues, tech workers primarily turn to their “own moral compass.” It shows that formal support structures feature very low, with only 29% turning to company policy, and 27% to industry standards.
But this doesn’t mean tech workers are only guided by their conscience – many use the internet (38%) or discuss with colleagues (35%).
What does Doteveryone argue needs to be done?
To combat these issues, Doteveryone is very clear in its recommendations. It argues that businesses need much more transparency in their processes for raising ethical issues, increased investment in training and resources so tech workers are better equipped to engage with ethical decision making in their work, and to work collaboratively to build industry-wide standards.
But the report doesn’t only call on businesses to act – it also calls for government to “provide incentives for responsible innovation.” This is particularly interesting, as it is a little different to the continuing mantra of regulation. It arguably changes the discussion, focusing less on rules and restrictions, and much more on actively encouraging a human-centered approach to technology and business.
How the conversation around ethics and technology evolves in the years to come remains to be seen. But whatever happens, it’s certainly essential that the views of those at the center of the industry are heard, and that they are empowered, as the report says, “to do their best work.”