I recently watched Secrets of Silicon valley on BBC2 with disbelief as tech companies lined up to claim they were doing social good, but none demonstrated any consideration for the potentially massive, negative social impact of their creation.
Too many tech businesses, large and small, seem to have forgotten the fundamental rule of business; society allows businesses to operate, and supports them through transactions, as long as they operate within a moral code of what is judged fair and just.
A business cannot claim to be doing a social good if what they do will result in negative social impact as well, every other sector has moved on from that approach, so why does the tech sector think it is acceptable.
Unethical, exploitative or immoral behaviour in business is not new, but the ‘Millennial’ generation and the younger cohort have a greater sense of agency and a sharper moral perspective than previous generations, increasingly using fairness as a measure by which brands are judged. The negative consequences for brands behaving badly are greater and felt quicker. So it doesn’t matter how disruptive a business thinks it is being, ‘its the price of progress’ is not an acceptable excuse if what it does damages society; it was used by globalization advocates for years before many realized that a damaged society was not worth the price of progress.
Many tech businesses are currently being scrutinized through a moral lens. No doubt Facebook and their like will continue to grow, for now, but at what cost to society and for how long before ever greater numbers of their users and advertisers reject digital platforms that enable people to verbally abuse, incite violence, trade drugs and weapons, exploit and sexualise young people and far worse. Accountability will come home to roost sooner or later.
If tech businesses, and their investors, don’t want to see government intervention, litigation or direct action, they need to be consider social impact, both negative and positive, from the outset. Some are starting to pay the price of operating outside the moral code of business; Uber, Facebook, Deliveroo, Snapchat and YouTube are just the biggest, recent examples; none are too big to fail.
This is not just relevant to the tech sector, if any business acts immorally for the sake of profit at the expense of people’s well being and welfare it will get found out and it will pay the price. This places the emphasis on all brands to declare their Social Purpose clearly and with demonstrable commitment; those that do will reap the rewards through the commitment of their customers and employees, which seems only fair, don’t you think?