Digital Ethics 2: Teen today, digital humanist tomorrow
By Subra Suppiah & Florin Rotar March 21, 2016
- The ‘human factor’ needs greater weight in technology decision-making
- Digital humanists can help personalise and humanise the impact of new tech
JUST as the industrial revolution fundamentally changed society in the 18th and 19th centuries, ubiquitous connectivity and real-time access to enormous data sets means that today’s teenagers will end up working in roles that do not exist today (PDF).
According to market research company IDC, 8.6 billion connected things will be in use by 2020 in the Asia Pacific region by 2020.
The rise of digital technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT) is also driving new ethical considerations.
Digital is enabling companies to collect, store and analyse unprecedented amounts of data about customers and employees. Having access to this array of information requires organisations to consider not only what can be done for commercial benefit, but whether it should be done from an ethical perspective.
Meanwhile, people entering the workforce today tend to seek more significant meaning from their work and to make a greater impact on society.
As a result, a critical new role is emerging in the digital economy: The digital humanist.
The digital humanist
Decisions on the adoption of new technological capabilities continue to largely be led by logical engineers whose main priority is identifying innovation possibilities for enablers like data analytics, virtual reality, and intelligent software.
To these engineers, extending the boundaries of functionality and automation is a primary objective.
Traditionally, this objective has been at the expense of creating a beautiful user experience, causing frequent adoption issues for organisations, and frustrations for individuals trying to learn cumbersome new systems.
However, in our increasingly data-dense society, where companies have unprecedented access to personal information about customers and employees, the ‘human factor’ can no longer be diminished in technology decision-making.
Moreover, the next-generation workforce comprising humans, devices, algorithms, intelligent software and data presents new ethical complexities for companies.
The role of a digital humanist is to advocate for customer and employee expectations in digital innovation projects. This advocacy will span user experience and design, but also the ethics of new technology innovations.
Digital ethics is not mandated by law, so it is largely up to each individual organisation to set its own innovation parameters and define how its data will be used.
For example, Malaysian telecommunications and broadcast companies like Digi and Astro have outlined their very own code of ethics when it comes to their customers’ privacy.
Digital humanists will not only be influential in establishing and maintaining a relevant ethical framework for companies, but also in personalising and humanising the impacts of new technologies.
Digital humanists will consider scenarios like whether a customer would be comfortable with store associates or bank clerks recommending products and services based on behaviours that cookies have tracked online.
Or, conversely, whether a customer would be comfortable receiving a bad health prognosis digitally, rather than from a doctor or nurse.
Beyond data management and usage considerations, the digital humanist will influence company innovation with a more ‘right-brain’ approach to thinking, countering the dominant ‘left-brain’ thinking of logical engineers.
Instead of asking ‘Can we do this?’ they will ask, ‘Should we do this?’
All this begs the question: What makes a good digital humanist?
As with any new job role, it is important to have the right people performing the right tasks. Below are a few characteristics of a digital humanist:
1) Trusted advisor
A digital humanist will need to be able to synthesise different ideas into constructive strategies and to influence stakeholders at all levels of the organisation.
A digital humanist will be capable of conceptualising the art of the possible with digital, but demonstrate empathy for human wants and needs.
3) Forward thinking
A digital humanist will need to be able to recognise potential threats and opportunities resulting from digital innovations.
The balance of influence between engineers and digital humanists is currently skewed towards the former, but this will shift rapidly as companies recognise the implications of digitisation.
A digital ethics framework and the role of digital humanist will be essential to the capacity of companies in balancing massive potential risks to trust and reputation against the potential commercial rewards of having access to, and insights from, unprecedented amounts of customer and employee data.
There is also a generational shift. People entering the workforce today are not just seeking a job; they are looking to gain more fundamental meaning from their work and to positively impact society.
In this context, logical engineers will continue to be integral to digital innovation, but the role of the digital humanist will become increasingly influential.
Indeed, to succeed in the digital economy, a company will need to have its engineers and digital humanists working in harmony.
Subra Suppiah is country manager of Avanade Malaysia and Florin Rotar is Avanade’s Digital global portfolio lead.
Previous Instalment: Digital Ethics 1: Balancing the risks and rewards
Gen Z: Hungry and impatient for success
Millennials and employers: Saving the relationship
The legalities of big data and data analytics
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