Doteveryone interim CEO Catherine Miller - “We've always liked tech; we just don't want all the crap that comes with it.”
- The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated appreciation of crucial digital services platform, but it's also reminded society of some significant exclusion problems and divisions between IT buyers and sellers.
Technology's enabled us to do an awful lot over the past two months, but it still feels like a half life. I don't think any of us would choose to continue to live in this way.
It’s a sentiment that most of us can probably get behind, articulated in this instance by Catherine Miller, interim CEO at Dotreveryone, the responsible technology thinktank set up by Martha Lane-Fox to help navigate moral and ethical issues in the digital economy.
Earlier this week Doteveryone published the People, Power and Technology: The 2020 Digital Attitudes Report on public perceptions of the tech sector based on a poll base of 2,000 UK citizens. It found - as detailed here - that while the COVID-19 crisis has boosted adoption (at least temporarily) of digital platforms such as Zoom, online grocery services and takeaway food delivery aggregators, mistrust in the ethics and intentions of tech vendors is at an all time low.
Prior to the publication of the report, Miller discussed the role of technology in helping society to adapt to a world radically altered by the pandemic in an online event hosted by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. It’s a case of mixed results to date, she argued, although lockdown has clearly driven some degree of appreciation for digital platforms:
We actually did a nationally representative survey just before lockdown came into place and then focus groups just after. And in those focus groups, literally two days after lockdown started, would say, 'Oh my goodness, thank God for the internet because kids can still talk to their friends and we can still shop and I can get this information'. It does just highlight a lot of the phenomenal things that the internet brings that we had started to take for granted.
That said, the current situation has exposed shortcomings as well as emphasise strengths, she said:
It has thrown up some places where some things work surprisingly badly. If you think about homeschooling, apart from that I'm not a great home schooler, the level of digital capability within schools and within school administrations is woeful. I'm not the only parent who's looking at non-editable PDFs of math questions for an eight year old that can take up your entire day. [Tech's] enabled a lot, but it's actually shown up where there are some things which just have an awfully long way to go.
And that’s never more true than when it relates to some societal basics, she added:
There's an interesting thing of having done that research just after lockdown, compared to how we all feel now as of six seven weeks in, you realise that yes, tech can do an awful lot, but God, there's a lot that you miss. You miss your friends, your grandparents miss their grandchildren desperately. The social contact is just irreplaceable and we should never forget that.
The Doteveryone research exposed a number of key attitudinal technology schisms throughout society, including a continuation of the long-standing divide between the digital ‘haves’ and the digital ‘have nots’:
There's the truly digitally-excluded, people who have no internet access, homeless people sex workers, people who are really very much on the margins and didn't really know what's happening. So although some of us feel flooded with information, If you're not connected, you just don't know that.
But I think the other thing that we've found through the work that we've done is that within people who use the internet, which is the vast majority of people, there's also a divide and that richer people feel the benefits of technology far more than poor people. That was true before the crisis hit, but now it's predominantly people who are in low paid work, who can't continue to work digitally, who have to go out and be exposed to potential risk. You don't get that benefit of digitization if you're a delivery driver, if you're stacking shelves in the supermarket. You're not feeling that. So there's a potential for a sort of 'tech left behind' emerging from this crisis. I think that's quite troubling.
On the other hand, there are also a few positive opportunities that have emerged such as more flexible attitudes to home working. The call center industry is a good case-in-point here, as many organizations have enabled their contact teams to work from the kitchen table in their homes in a bid to maintain working services. Miller said:
The call center example is a really good one because it's not just a shift to 'from home'. That suddenly becomes a job that you can do between the school drop-off and the school pick-up. It sort of becomes like a cottage industry job where almost you become like an Uber driver. For the call center, you say, 'OK I've got four hours here now, so I'll do four hours of calls'. That’s phenomenally empowering, a new bit almost of the gig economy that opens up, although, obviously, we don't want that to open up with all the problems that we associate with the existing gig economy.
More broadly from our point of view where we see an opportunity is really to take this shift - and it is tricky because it's happening so quickly - as an opportunity. If we are creating new digital structures, we [should] do so having already learned some of the lessons of the past decade of where things need to be. You need safeguards in place before you set off on this road, where you need to think through the impacts that you're going to have on society, all the way down the line, and not just play around with people's lives and then go, 'Oops that went wrong’.
On the topic of things that have gone wrong, the most depressing thing to emerge from Doteveryone’s latest research is how little progress has been made in recent years to improve the public’s perception of the tech sector. When half of those asked said they believe that attempts to cheat or harm them are ‘part and parcel’ of using the internet and that tech firms just do what they please, clearly the ‘techlash’ is as strong as ever.
The accelerated shift to digital services since the COVID-19 outbreak makes addressing such negative, near defeatist, sentiments all the more essential, suggested Miller:
‘Techlash’ never meant that people didn't enjoy the benefits of technology. It was more that people continued to enjoy the benefits of technology, but became more aware of the downsides at the same time. In the same sense, as we move more profoundly into this [tech] dependence that we have during lockdown, that dynamic is still there. We still love the benefits of it, but we're sort of aware of the downsides. Because we are now so dependent, that vulnerability to the downside has just become massively amplified and exacerbated.
From my point of view, that means that the need for for robust regulation to protect the public is even more profound now than before. So we shouldn't buy this idea that really we can throw the regulation debate out of the window because everyone's really happy with tech now. We've always liked tech; we just don't want all the crap that comes with it. That crap element still needs to be addressed. There are no effective systems of redress for people when things go wrong. If you do get scammed, where on earth do you go with that? Who do you turn to? The public really is not getting sufficient answers.
Business leadership lessons
The global health crisis has also fueled an acceleration of digital transformation programs across all sectors. Vendors such as Microsoft have talked recently of seeing 2 years of work being compressed into 2 months as a result of basic business survival needs on the part of end user organizations. How the tech sector responds to this sudden uptick in demand will be something to be judged post-crisis. Will vendors take the chance to improve how they engage with customers and put the oft-spun ‘partnership’ meme into genuine action? And if they do, will those at the helm in those organizations rise to the challenge and play their part in making digital transformation efforts work?
As with much to do with COVID-19’s impact on societal trends, such questions are based on an acceleration or exacerbation of existing conditions. Miller pointed out there is another divide in place, between vendor and buyer and it comes down to language:
The problem is that the information is there, but it's not in words that are relatable to people who run those organizations. Just going in and speaking digital words at people in ways that are not meaningful to them doesn't help people at all.
She cited the third sector as an exemplar:
What you tend to see is really awful projects where a well-intentioned charity says, ‘Oh well, we need to build an app!'. Please, please don't build an app! It's never going to be the solution…We need to recognise that these are organizational problems.They're not tech problems; they're understanding problems. Allowing people to start from where they are and leverage their amazing expertise and sector expertise [matters]. The people who run charities are phenomenally committed, so generous with their time, have so much understanding of very specific issues. We need to hold on to that and guide them gently into understanding how to adapt their practices for the digital era.
But across all sectors, there is a need for organizational leaders to be held to a higher standard, she added:
In any leadership position, the ability to understand the impact of digital technology should be the same as your ability to read a balance sheet. It's not okay to just go, 'Oh it's tech and I don't get it. But here we've got a bright young thing in a T shirt who's going to explain it all'. It's part of your duties is as a leader in any organization to get that. But I think sometimes the tech side of the world also has to be more understanding that their language is not meaningful to people in other places.
That language barrier between buyers and sellers is an excellent point and a long-running sore in the tech sector. And Miller is correct - it’s too simple to blame the problem on tech sales people pitching the latest buzzwords and bleeding-edge acronyms to dazzle the unwary end user executive. Caveat emptor remains sound advice, but intelligunt quod emisti - understand what you’re buying - is also essential.
As to the impact that COVID-19 lockdown has had on our appreciation of digital services provision, it’s been a learning experience - from the (first world problem) frustration of not even being able to get into the virtual queue at Ocado through observing friends kids adapting to online play sessions with their friends through to the business world shift to collaborative and remote working. It’s been a remarkable two months for change.
But Miller is 100% correct - this isn’t a life I want to live long term.