The rapid evolution of digital technologies is changing the face of the communications landscape in ways we may not even fully comprehend, and as communications professionals there is more than ever a need to challenge and question how and why we and the organisations we work are employing these technologies.
That was one of the overriding messages to come out of this year’s CIPR National Conference in London last week.
Digital tools that might seem innocent or good intentioned enough – to make it easier to do banking, talk to their financial advisers, do their weekly shop, access health advice, keep up to speed with the news, for instance - is actually part of something much bigger and much more philosophical in nature.
Speakers at this year’s conference questioned, for instance, whether technological developments are really ‘neutral’, there for the benefit of everyone and human progress; or whether actually these same developments are actually driven by a desire to monetise human behaviours, and appeal to a natural desire for emotional engagement.
In so doing, is technology responsible for driving the polarisation we are seeing in society more widely, through the creation of echo chambers, pulling groups of like-minded people closer and closer together, pushing contrary views further and further apart.
The evidence is that algorithms, for example, are certainly not neutral – in a recent example, the Apple Card was shown to offer very different options to people who were otherwise almost identical. Is the algorithm and the technology behind the card discriminatory, racist or sexist? Not intentionally perhaps, but it’s one high profile example of how technological innovation on its own cannot be the answer and that it’s in the implementation that it can help build a better world.
Then there’s data capture - do we feel genuinely comfortable, in a world where businesses are meant to be increasingly driven by purpose and a higher sense of corporate citizenship, with the idea that the tools we are rolling out are being employed to capture data and build digital profiles of people and children without their knowledge or consent. We know that social media platforms do it, yet we insist on using them still. It’s the user-provider trade-off. But does that make it right?
It’s important because technology, fuelled by data, is giving us choices, defining our options and informing our own decisions and perspectives every single day. It’s perhaps a bleak picture and one that has the potential to undermine democracy and divide the very communities the technology is meant to be bringing together.
But of course, technology has the clear opportunity to improve lives and bring communities together too – and the positive news is that a good deal of digital progress is in its nascent stage now. That gives us now the opportunity to really question what it is we are doing with technology, to ensure it is not divisive, and that it can be a force for good. Take, for example, Tim Berners-Lee’s thoughts on ‘refounding’ the web, 30 years after its creation, with a new set of rules and parameters.
The world of technology and brings together a range of interested parties, from the IT developers, creatives, and advisors, to the communications, public relations and marketing professionals - it is in all of our courts now to work collaboratively, pick up the uncomfortable challenge, think about our Corporate Digital Responsibility, and ensure we do not blindly walk into a future that we have the opportunity right now to shape.