Are tech companies responsible for IT-driven social change?
Business Management

Are tech companies responsible for IT-driven social change?

On 11th September this year, Barcelona was broken. Although few of the foreign businesspeople would have known it beforehand, they were arriving on the National day of Catalonia. Taxis were hard to come by, many shops were temporarily closed and countless people on mopeds buzzed around draped in red-and-yellow flags. A local explained that we shouldn't expect things to work properly that day, as people had other priorities. She wasn't wrong.

11th September was also the start of VMworld Barcelona 2017, an annual three-day conference of 20,000+ VMware executives, staff, partners and customers, with numerous analysts and journalists tagging along for the ride. It began with an upbeat keynote speech by VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger and ended with a Kaiser Chiefs gig.

It was an odd juxtaposition, a world within a world. Barcelona itself is a wealthy city but Spain has significant problems including an unemployment rate in the high teens, even higher for young people.

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In his opening speech, Gelsinger said, “Today is the slowest day of technological innovation of the rest of your life.” He went on to cite examples of technology changing so fast that the innovative quickly becomes mundane, such as exoskeletons and CRISPR gene editing. The rate of innovation is itself increasing, an exponential change.

Can people and societies adapt fast enough to keep up? If even staff within tech companies are suffering from change fatigue, how is such rapid change going to affect low-paid workers in the service economy? Will they retrain? If so, how quickly? Will there be a social safety net, paid for out of the profits of the technology companies whose automated, machine learning products are increasingly replacing low-wage workers?

If this sounds like a political issue, that's what technology has become. Political means 'affairs of the cities' and technology is certainly that, perhaps more so than ever before in human history. The power of technology is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few people and organisations, wielding power over billions.

That's particularly true of personal data, mined and processed in ever-more-ingenious ways using machine learning and AI. To quote Michael Rovatsos, who leads the AI group at the School of Informatics at Edinburgh university, “the data assets the best [AI] systems are based on are owned by a very small number of large corporations […] It is essential that governments act now with appropriate anti-trust legislation to enable new companies to enter these markets, possibly even to make data a public good”. There's little sign of that happening, nor the will to make it happen.

Soon after the VMworld circus packed up and left Barcelona, the city and its environs found itself in a head-on clash with Spain's government, thanks to unofficial/illegal ballots on independence for Catalonia. At the time of writing, the situation is getting worse rather than better, with strikes, heavy-handed police tactics, intervention by the King of Spain, appeals to the EU for mediation and ever-louder calls for integration on one side and independence on the other.

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None of this has anything to do with VMworld, of course. It could be reasonably argued that the conference brought welcome economic stimulus to Spain. Certainly it did no harm to local businesses, especially those restaurants and nightclubs that welcomed the attendees late into the night.

But it's not often that we see so clear a juxtaposition of a high-value, high-technology industry with a part of the real world that has strong political and social identity issues. It's a punctuation that helps to highlight a wider challenge: the increasing gulf between the technology haves and have-nots, the people who control IT and the people who use it and increasingly, as part of the gig economy, are used by it.

The showcase demonstration of the VMworld conference was the technological revamp of a fictional pizza company. Slickly presented by professional actors, we heard from the CEO, the CIO/CTO, the developers and the IT people. Pizza-chefs and kitchen staff were conspicuous by their absence, replaced as part of the VMware-driven company relaunch by robotic, pizza-making delivery vans that sourced all ingredients automatically and ensured the finished product was delivered to customers fresh and piping hot. There was no room for unskilled or even semi-skilled labour in that made-over company. Nobody so much as touched a pizza, except in celebrating and consuming the finished product.

Technology is not the enemy here. This article is not suggesting that VMware or any other tech company is doing anything wrong. Technology has always led to social change, right back to the Spinning Jenny or the introduction of agriculture. It's happening, and will continue to happen, all around the world. What matters is how that change is managed.

IT is making increasing numbers of people redundant at an ever-faster rate. A valid response to that fact is that people will retrain, new jobs will be found, increased leisure time will allow us to pursue more sociable and worthy pastimes, and so on. While those things certainly could and should happen, it will take political will to encourage and, in some cases, enforce such widespread and dramatic changes in society.

The slick, capable, efficient VMworld conference showed that technology companies are hugely adept at handling change, adapting to new situations and getting the most out of any market. Their power and flexibility is admirable.

By contrast, the Spanish/Catalan stand-off shows that regional and national governments lag far, far behind when it comes to managing even basic day-to-day business. Any organisation that resorts to hitting people with sticks is unlikely to have the finesse and tact required to manage complex social, political and economic issues. Expecting such governments to manage the vast social shift engendered by rapid technological change seems ridiculously, unrealistically optimistic.

If technology is to continue to change the world for the better, much of the impetus for the 'social good' part of that change may have to come from technology companies themselves rather than governments. A new era of ethical IT enterprise behaviour? It may sound unlikely but it's probably essential, not just for the displaced workers involved but for the survival of the companies themselves in the longer term.

Without this change of attitudes, deep-rooted social discontent might one day erupt without warning and disrupt the once-disruptors. Just ask the Catalans.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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