Frank Buytendijk is a Gartner Research Analyst
and a pioneer of digital ethics helping organizations to do the «right thing» with technology and avoid «messing up». Within the broad topic of Information Innovation, he specializes in information management strategies, Big Data and analytics. He also covers the impact of technology on society. Frank Buytendijk is the author of five books, including «Socrates Reloaded» which explores the philosophy and ethics of information technology. We accompanied Franck in a journey through a practice that should become increasingly relevant in the future.

What do ethics have to do with digital?

Digital ethics are basically a branch of general ethics: it’s about what is good and what is bad. That’s a bit of an issue in business life because we forgot how to have ethical discussions, as we’ve always seen – it’s in our DNA – an organization as an amoral construct. Digital ethics try to bring the discussion back in the digital world for digital business by asking two important questions: the first one is how to not mess up with all those new technologies, and to avoid taking things too far, across what I call the creepy line. The second question is «How can you contribute to the good life with digital technology, how can you use technology in a virtuous way»? Those are basically two questions that can last a life time; it’s a difficult but important topic.

Why do digital ethics matter?

Well, whenever technological innovation goes so fast that we – as people, as businesses or as society at large – can’t put our arms around it, can we understand all of what’s happening? Whenever technology innovation goes faster, then we have to ask ourselves at one moment: «Is this good»? «Is this desirable or not»? «Do we want this innovation to take place autonomously, without supervision, or do we want at least some discussion about it and perhaps put some control around it»? I think we can all feel the development of Big Data, social media and the cloud. And with mobile technology, smart machines and the Internet of Things, those new trends are developing so fast that we just can’t see the magnitude of it.

How candigital ethics apply to organizations on a day to day basis?

Digital Ethics caused a media buzz when Professor Stephen Hawking said that Artificial intelligence – and digital technology – could spell the end of the human race, or when Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, one of the biggest visionaries of the Silicon Valley, compared building AI to «summoning the demon». Although it’s important that these luminaries give attention to the topic, their claims or statements don’t really help on a daily basis. They are too big and they are not actionable. On a daily basis,

I think we can all see examples in our environment, our businesses, where we can easily take things too far. The question we have to ask ourselves at this particular moment is «How far do we go with Big Data?» Every time you deal with information that says something about a customer, per definition you have to ask yourself «What does this mean to the privacy of the consumers, of our customers»? It’s very easy to take that too far, particularly in the sensitive market in which we live now, where, consumers are easily upset. So I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t do Big Data on customer data – I think, you should, that it’s important – but make sure you understand what the limitations are; how far you can go before customers feel that their privacy is being threatened.

How can business leaders ensure that they are going in the right «ethical» direction? Is there an existing code?

There is nothing you can guarantee. You can do the right thing and still mess up in the eye of the public. After the scandal with the NSA, people are extremely sensitive and the media have their own agenda as well. So, sometimes they actually misrepresent a situation and accuse companies of things that didn’t even happen. Moreover, if something really bad happens which threatens privacy or security, in most cases, it is unintended. So there is no such thing as a general code of conduct here. Recently, we published a research report analyzing 70 cases of digital ethics worldwide. A lot of guidance is coming out of it but it would be too easy to just absorb all these examples and rules and say: «Right, now I have rules, now I have best practices, so if I follow them we’re fine». In the end, there is only one rule that stands out and that rule is: «Can you look into your eyes in the mirror and tell yourself you’re doing the right thing?» It’s not about following best practices but about discovering what you believe in as a leader.

What do company leaders need to do to ensure that their employees are conscious of digital ethics?

As a leader, of course, you should be more aware than anyone else – that’s why you are the leader! You should start the discussion, you should ask the difficult questions, you should challenge people, and you should not approve business cases that have not explored «the other side». It’s not only about efficiency, not only about effectiveness, but also about ethics. This is more than risk management – not doing something because you are afraid to get caught. By asking the right questions and being persistent about it, you create awareness among the bigger group of people making them think for themselves and discuss with each other as well. There is no single way of defining what is good or what is bad. For a leader, creating a «pluriform» discussion in which many voices get a chance to speak up and provide arguments for or against a certain use of technology is massively helpful. So start, lead the discussion and involve as many voices as possible.