The way traditional media affects the politics of our society is, if not well-controlled, at least pretty well understood by the protagonists. By contrast, only a minority are capable of visualising how our society is being driven by decisions on software, systems and algorithms. The balance of power in our society is dependent on who makes decisions about information and technology.
After the last general election I had a discussion with representatives from BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT) student chapters –highly-motivated computing students – on the impact of digital technology on society. The discussion led us to wonder whether Twitter’s algorithms had measurably affected the outcome of the election. The really alarming question is whether this could have been intentional, and how anyone would be able to tell. Twitter is only one of a number of household names that have large and increasing influence over our eyeballs and give experiences that are personalised, driven by invisible software rather than visible broadcasts and ink.
The big tech names are only a small part of the story. Decisions are made by people working with digital technology that impact us through public services, our interactions with businesses, charities, and each other. The aggregate impact on our society is not just on eyeballs and national political opinion. It affects all of us on a functional level, and for some groups – such as the disabled or disadvantaged – it can tip the balance as to whether they are locked out of society or emancipated. Fairness, quality of life, opportunity, security and economic advantage can all be subtly driven by technology decisions. Technology in this context is not a tool but a way of describing how one group of people impact the rest of us in ways we don’t understand.
So what is the relationship between the people taking these decisions and the people subject to those decisions?
When we looked afresh at the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, we began asking that question in earnest. The responses of technology companies and some voices in our professional membership were starkly at odds with the government positions. This is illustrated by the clash between Apple and the FBI, which though complex and nuanced highlights a very different perspective between the people in those two organisations. Dialogue and disagreement between technology companies and government is nothing new, but the clash with law enforcement and security is increasingly visible.
Those working in technology are clearly not a homogenous group, and across society there is a wide range of views on privacy, security and surveillance; many of our members are ardent advocates of the investigatory powers, albeit under tight governance, because they believe it is necessary to gain advantage over some real and serious threats to our society. However, our instincts and experiences suggested there might be a real disparity in views between the general public and IT professionals when it comes to surveillance.
Those instincts, it turns out, were right. Our research revealed that just 35% of IT professionals feel very or fairly comfortable with the security services and police having access to their website history. This was compared with 54% of British adults who feel very or fairly comfortable according to findings from a YouGov UK online survey we commissioned. So there is a disparity, and for an attitudinal survey, it is a substantial gap.
The reasons for this significant variation are not yet clear. There are at least two competing hypotheses. The first is that people in technology are more aware of the implications of data collection and use than the rest of the public. The second is that people working in technology have, for whatever reason, political views that skew away from the mainstream.
The answer to these questions has profound implications. If those designing the future fabric of our society are divergent in their thinking from their fellow human beings, perhaps they will take us where we don’t want to go. If instead they are more aware of the consequences of our current path, and they are telling us it’s out of control, we should all take heed.
In my own experience, our members who hold this spectrum of views tend to be very positively motivated, ethical people. They care about those around them and want to do the right thing. However, the historic lack of mutual engagement with the rest of civil society means they are in danger of having these debates in isolation. This really is dangerous. For right or wrong, people taking technology decisions will determine the future of our citizenship in a digitally-driven society.