Friday, January 23, 2009

Does Technology Shape Our Ethics?

I was told once that theft in the workplace goes something like this: 10% of your employees will never, under any circumstances, steal from you. Another 10% will find ways to steal from you under almost any circumstances, no matter what precautions you take. And the remaining 80% will only steal if you give them an easy opportunity.

At a glance this seemed like a reasonable hypothesis for how people behave.  In reality, however, I work in a company with about 350 people and I cannot conceive that 35 are incorrigible thieves.  Or 3.5, for that matter (though a willing suspension of reality is one of a CEO’s most desired traits).

Suppose that we buy this theory, however, or better yet, a more optimistic, lopsided bell curve that says only 1% will steal regularly and 50% will never, under any circumstances, steal. Does technology change that?

Think about a simple, non-theft situation. A confidential (and seemingly juicy) email is accidentally blasted to the entire workforce.  Five seconds later another email is sent that says “The email you just received is confidential. Please delete it without reading.”  What happened to our optimistic bell curve? Would you guess 20% would read the first email? 50%? Is it higher because it’s perceived as a “victimless crime,” or because the technology makes it easy?

Suppose you received the written negotiating position of your acquisition target on email by mistake and were called immediately by their attorney asking you to destroy it. It’s not so “victimless” this time--so, what happens?

I don’t know anyone that would walk into a Best Buy and steal a music CD. But remember Napster? Remember, when the courts declared its music file-sharing illegal? Remember what happened in the weeks and days before it was to be shuttered? Thousands of people madly scrambled to download millions of free songs to avoid having to pay for CDs in stores.  In other words, people aggressively and knowingly stole the intellectual property of musicians and record companies. They just did not have to risk being caught by slipping a jewel case under their coat.

The explanations justifying Napster were, as I remember, three: CDs cost too much. The record company makes us buy songs I don’t like to get the ones I like. Technology allowed us to do it, so it was ok.

So, does our technology shape our ethics?

I spoke to someone over the holidays who had watched a first-run movie that had been illegally recorded and was being distributed online. This is a good, ethical person who, nonetheless, did not see anything particularly wrong with what he had done. Somehow, technology made it alright.

It’s even more insidious than that. This morning I read about a paper published last August by Charles E. Naquin, Terri R. Kurtzberg, and Liuba Y. Belkin entitled Being Honest Online: The Finer Points of Lying Online in Online Ultimatum Bargaining. In it, the authors argue (italics mine):
People are far more likely to lie in e-mail communication than in pen-and-paper communication, despite the fact that e-mails are harder to erase or keep from being distributed.

In one experiment, the authors asked a group of 48 MBA students to divide US$89 among themselves and a fictional party, where the fictional party did not know the amount of the payout and had to accept whatever was offered to him or her. An astounding 92 percent of the MBA students using e-mail misreported the size of the pot in order to keep more of the payout for themselves, versus less than 64 percent of students using pen and paper.

In a subsequent experiment, the authors tested to see whether students would lie as frequently to people they know. Their findings suggest that students would lie with the same frequency, but the magnitude of their lies would decrease.

Bottom Line: People are more comfortable lying via e-mail than in pen-and-paper communication, despite the ease with which e-mails can be stored and searched. Managers should pay close attention to workers who use e-mail to negotiate with partners or ensure that both forms of text communication are used for important negotiations.

Astounding, isn’t it—that the technological format of our communications can affect our ethics?

Which really makes me worry about the impact of social networking on our children; how do ethics change when someone is hidden in their bedroom behind a keyboard?

The Bismark Tribune reported last week that authorities are trying to crack down on drunken bar brawls in Center, North Dakota, Oliver County’s biggest city. Over the last two years there have been half-a-dozen fights, the latest this month that left a man with severe facial injuries.

Oliver County State’s Attorney Mike Liffrig has asked the city to force bar owners to install surveillance systems and require them to immediately report fights.

How do you think bar owners reacted when faced with technology that would encourage good behavior?  Exactly. They hated it. They'll fight it. Surveillance lowers profits.

I have often thought how easy it would be for law enforcement to measure automobile speed based on our Easy Pass/Fast Lane transponders.  We’d all hate that, just as we would hat surveillance cameras in bars (or just about anywhere else).

I’m sure there are instances where technology both improves our ethics and is embraced by the masses. But all I can dream-up right now are examples where it bends us in the wrong direction.