So, it was that time of the year when Salesforce enthusiasts, thought-leaders, and pioneers gathered around downtown San-Francisco, to attend the annual Dreamforce conference last week.
This year marked the 15th anniversary of the Salesforce annual conference with over 100,000 trailblazers flocking towards the bay area. Throughout these years, technological development in the platform has been the focal point of these conferences, but it was different this time around.
A lot has happened between the conference that took place in 2017 and now, especially after Facebook’s Cambridge analytica scandal. First Whatsapp’s co-founder Jan Koum parted ways with Facebook, and now the Instagram co-founders have called it quits. Interestingly, Marc Benioff gave an interview to Bloomberg Technology in which he condemned Facebook as the ‘new cigarettes’.
To regulate or not to regulate, that is the question
Marc Benioff has been a vocal criticizer of the social media platform. Earlier this year, when innovators and tech leaders gathered at the annual World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps of Davos, Benioff was one of the panelist discussing on the factors of trust in technology where he made certain interesting points. He took the examples of financial industry a decade ago, where bankers were pretty confident that new products like credit default swaps (CDS), and collateralized debt obligation (CDO) would lead to better economic growth but instead it lead to the biggest financial crisis the world had ever seen.
Similarly, he argued that Cigarettes were introduced as this great product for pass time, without any background on its adverse effects on health. Well to the cut the story short, the point that Benioff was trying to make is that these industries were able to take advantage of the addictive behavior of humans because of the clear lack of regulation from the governmental bodies. It was only when the regulators became strict towards these sectors and public reforms came into the picture, these products were brought under control. Similarly, Benioff had called for a regulation of companies, on behalf of the recent news linking the Russian interference in the US presidential elections. He urged the CEO’s of companies to take better responsibilities towards their consumers and their products without explicitly mentioning any name. Let’s take a guess, Mark Zuckerberg anyone?
While Benioff made a strong case for regulation, the solution seemed to be more politically driven. Rachel Botsman, Visiting Academic and Lecturer at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, argued that regulators are not aware of the new decentralized nature of today’s technological platforms. And ultimately who do we want as the arbiters of truth, should it be Facebook, Regulators, or the Users? and where does the hierarchy of accountability lie in this new structure of platforms? The big question remains.
The ethical and humane side of technology
Fast forward to Dreamforce 2018, with star-studded guest speakers ranging from the former American Vice President Al Gore to Andre Iguodala of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. Benioff started with his usual opening keynote but this time with a lot of enthusiasm, or as one might say in a full evangelical mode, the message from the Salesforce CEO was very clear, “We are in the fourth industrial revolution”.
Salesforce announced plenty of new products and some key strategic business partnerships with the likes of Apple and AWS now joining Salesforce. While these announcements summarized the technological advancements in the platform, his interview with Bloomberg Technology’s Emily Chang was quite opportunistic.
The interview started casually with talks of Benioff sharing his job with the new Co-CEO Keith Block. But soon they discussed the news about Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger leaving the services of parent company Facebook. While Benioff still maintained his position on regulation, he also discussed about the ethics and humane side of technology.
The ethics of technology has come under the spotlight in the recent months with the advancements in Artificial intelligence. In order to solve these questions, Benioff said that Salesforce has taken its first step by setting up the “Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology” at the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco. At first, this initiative looks like a solid first step towards solving the problem of technology being used for unethical work. But going back to the argument posed by Rachel Botsman, who actually leverages technology to do unethical work? Is it the Company or the consumer?
While Salesforce boasts about its stand on the ethics of building a technological system, Marc Benioff is still silent on the question of Salesforce’s ties with the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, which follows Donald Trump’s strong anti-immigration agenda. Protesters took a stand against this issue during the Salesforce conference and hundreds of employees from Salesforce wrote an open letter to Benioff to cut ties with the CBP. In return, Benioff responded that its contract with CBP does not deal directly with the separation of children at the Mexican borders.
One decision at a time
Ethics is largely driven by human behavior, while innovators believe that technological advancements should happen regardless of the outcome, it is the responsibility of every stakeholder in the company, be it a developer, an executive, or a customer to take action against unethical work. And with each mistake, companies and CEOs are provided with opportunities to set things right.
Take McKinsey & Company for example. The top management consultancy was under fire due to its scandal in the South African government. But when the firm again came under scrutiny with its ties with the CBP of USA, McKinsey’s new managing partner, Kevin Sneader, came out saying that the firm “will not, under any circumstances, engage in any work, anywhere in the world, that advances or assists policies that are at odds with our values.” It’s now time for companies like Facebook and Salesforce to set the benchmark for the future of technology.