technology-workplace-culture

If you were to put together a list of all the buzzwords and hot topics in business today, you’d be hard pressed to leave off culture, innovation or disruption.

They might even be the top three. In an environment of constant technological change, we’re continuously promised a new edge. We can have sleeker service, faster communication or better teamwork.

This all makes sense. Technology is the future of work. Whether it’s remote work, agile work flows or AI enhanced research, we’re going to be able to do more with less, and do it better.

For organisations who are doing good work, that’s great. And if those organisations are working for the good of society (as they should), that’s great for us all.

Without looking a gift horse in the mouth though, we should be careful technology enhances our work rather than distracting us from it.

Most of us can probably think of a time when our office suddenly had to work with a totally new, totally pointless bit of software. Out of nowhere, you’ve got a new chatbot, all your info has been moved to ‘the cloud’ or customer emails are now automated.

This is usually the result of what the comedian Eddie Izzard calls “techno-joy”. It’s the unthinking optimism that technology is a cure for all woes.

Unfortunately, it’s not. Techno-joyful managers are more headache than helper. But more than that, they can also put your culture – or worse, your ethics – in a tricky spot.

Here’s the thing about technology. It’s more than hardware or code. Technology carries a set of values with it. This happens in a few ways.

Techno-logic

All technology works through a worldview we call ‘techno-logic’. Basically, technology aims to help us control things by making the world more efficient and effective. As we explained in our recent publication, Ethical by Design:

Techno-logic sees the world as though it is something we can shape, control, measure, store and ultimately use. According to this view, techno-logic is the ‘logic of control’. No matter the question, techno-logic has one overriding concern: how can we measure, alter, control or use this to serve our goals?

Whenever you’re engaging with technology, you’re being invited and encouraged to see the world in a really narrow way. That can be useful – problem solving happens by ignoring what doesn’t matter and focussing on what’s important. But it can also mean we ignore stuff that matters more than just getting the job done as fast or effectively as we can.

A great example of this comes from Up in the Air, a film in which Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) works for a company who specialise in sacking people. When there are mass layoffs to be made, Bingham is there. Until technology comes to call. Research suggests video conferencing would be cheaper and more effective. Why fly people around America when you can sack someone from the comfort of your own office?

As Bingham points out, you do it because sometimes making something efficient destroys it. Imagine going on an efficient date or keeping every conversation as efficient as possible. We’d lose something essential, something rich and human.

With so much technology available to help with recruitment, performance management and customer relations, we need to be mindful that technology is fit for purpose. It’s very easy for us to be sucked into the logic of technology until suddenly, it’s not serving us, we’re serving it. Just look at journalism.

Drinking the affordance Kool-Aid

Journalism has always evolved alongside media. From newspaper to radio, podcasting and online, it’s a (sometimes) great example of an industry adapting to technological change. But at times, it over adapts, and the technological cart starts to pull the journalistic horse.

 

 

Today, online articles are ‘optimised’ to drive engagement and audience. This means stories are designed to hit a sweet spot in word count to ensure people don’t tune out, they’re given titles that are likely to generate clicks and traffic, and the kinds of things people are likely to read tend to get more attention.

A lot of that is common sense, but when it turns out that what drives engagement is emotion and conflict, this can put journalists in a bind. Are they impartial reporters of truth, lacking an audience, or do they massage journalistic principles a little so they can get the most readers they can?

I’ll leave it to you to decide which way journalism as an industry has gone. What’s worth noting is that many working in media weren’t aware of some of these changes whilst they were happening. That’s partly because they’re so close to the day-to-day work, but it can also be explained by something called ‘affordance theory’.

Affordance theory suggests that technological design contains little prompts, suggesting to users how they should interact with it. They invite users to behave in certain ways and not others. For example, Facebook makes it easier for you to respond to an article with feelings than thinking. How? All you need to do to ‘like’ a post is click a button but typing out a thought requires work.

Worse, Facebook doesn’t require you to read an article at all before you respond. It encourages quick, emotional, instinctive reactions and discourages slow thinking (through features like automatic updates to feeds and infinite scroll).

These affordances are the water we swim in when we’re using technology. As users, we need to be aware of them, but we also need to be mindful of how they can affect purpose.

Technology isn’t just a tool, it’s loaded with values, invitations and ethical judgements. If organisations don’t know what kind of ethical judgements are in the tools they’re using, they shouldn’t be surprised when they end up building something they don’t like.

Join the conversation

Are we capable of creating technology without negative outcomes?