Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

What price success? (a note on corporate ethics)

Last week I spoke at FOM12, and the closing question was a proper BOOM. The questioner asked whether I think it’s inherently wrong for businesses to use personal data to target products, ads and content. I found myself saying, “It comes down to ethics.”

It felt a little weird to say that, although I was gratified to see a few smiles and nods around the room. As usual, I had to ask myself why it felt weird. My conclusion: the very idea of corporate ethics seems quaint and old fashioned, the kind of thing that only the extremely naive or not particularly bright believe in anymore.

This is very, very sad. Also very, very dangerous.

Ethics have, it seems, slipped away as regulation has crept ever deeper into the corporate landscape. If you’re not supposed to do it, commonly accepted practice seems to say, there’s a law against it. If there’s no law, then it’s all good. Besides which, you can probably find a way around the law if you really want to.

And we the people accept this. Sure, we’ll gripe and complain about it, but we seem to just kind of assume that’s the way of the world and get on with our lives.

The thing is, the data landscape is so rich and complex and chaotic and unpredictable that I don’t think legislation can even begin to cover it – at least, not without being cripplingly draconian. It’s like regulating the internet – really the only way to do it is to shut it, or people, down. It’s going to have to be good old-fashioned ethics – enforced by the watchful eye of we customers, users, citizens – that makes this landscape liveable.

Recently I’ve had the good fortune to discuss the question of personal data rather often and from a variety of angles – notably with the fabulous Jonathan MacDonald, with whom I collaborated on this Guardian article: Restoring the balance of power over online data privacy. I also talked about it from a different angle at PICNIC12, and with a number of other brilliant friends as well. We all agree that ownership of one’s data is critical, and we also seem to have the same cynical (realistic?) impression of the state of the corporate landscape.

So here’s an interesting question: is the dearth of ethics in the corporate world down to some level of genuine malice? Or is it the product of a fear born of the pressure for constant fiscal growth? I suspect it’s the latter, or at least habits that stem from that pressure. And habits are hard to break; change is scary.

The reality is that the explosion of data, personal and aggregate, *does* represent an amazing opportunity. But leveraging that opportunity in a sustainable way will require rethinking a lot of what businesses take for granted – new business models, new ways of engaging with and exchanging value with individuals, and new ways of thinking about and measuring success.

It occurs to me that an ethical approach is natural for any practitioner of human-centred design, and that means we can help. It’s not going to be easy, but by learning this new landscape and helping our business partners engage with its complexity to uncover real, sustainable opportunities, we can help ensure that data enriches our world and our lives as well as filling our coffers.