Neither melody nor din

Pat Gelsinger
VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger. (Image: VMware)

VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger sees tech as an 'amplifier' of human behaviour. Billy MacInnes asks how loud can it get

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30 August 2019 | 0

Is technology a force for good? Should it be? Does anyone in the IT industry actually go to work in the morning thinking it is?

I ask because it’s a question that was posed by VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger in his keynote at VMworld 2019. “Technologies, they amplify human behaviour – the good and the bad – then we ask the question: Is tech good or bad?”

To his credit, Gelsinger provided his own answer to the question: “The answer is generally neutral; it’s neither good or bad, but it’s often how we shape it and will technology shape the world that we want to live in, or will it create a world that we’re afraid to live in?”

So, at heart, his argument (and it’s a common one) is that it’s not technology that matters but what we do with it. It’s up to people to use the technology that exists in ways that are beneficial rather than damaging. All very simple.

Except it’s not quite that easy. For example, the IT industry may sell technology for a specific purpose but the functionality could be applied for something completely different. Or it could be something that occurs incrementally as the primary feature of a particular piece of technology ends up being used for a more dangerous purpose. As Gelsinger admitted: “As technologists, we have to acknowledge that often the innovations and breakthroughs we do can be used in unanticipated ways.”

But is that lack of awareness of what technologies could be used for – something akin to the law of unintended consequences – partly a consequence of the neutrality baked into it? After all, if we argue that technology is neutral so it’s what people do with it that defines whether it’s good or bad, we’re already acknowledging that technology has the potential to be bad.

If that’s the case, why do technologists continue to create neutral technology? Why would anyone make something that could amplify bad human behaviour? Isn’t bad human behaviour enough to be getting on with? Surely, the onus should be on ensuring that IT, if it does anything, amplifies good human behaviour?

So how do we shape technology? There are plenty of opportunities for IT to be used for good and there are also many instances where it is being used nefarious purposes. But does the responsibility lie purely with the people using the IT for those purposes? Are the creators of that technology completely absolved and unaccountable for what it is being used for? After all, if they hadn’t made it the way they made it, no one would be using it to do ill. If the technology we’re creating can be shaped “to create a world that we’re afraid to live in”, doesn’t that suggest we might not be doing this technology thing as well as we should?

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