Only Technology Can’t Solve Ethical Problems
The title of this post is from my old blog post. It was supposed to be published on internal blog of a huge IT company. I never finished it. Hence it never got published. The title perfectly matches this post as well. Hence I am reusing it.
Let me tell you the story I wrote for that internal blog. It was probably 2007. I was working for one of India’s biggest IT company. By then I had already spent four years there. I was outspoken. Management was responsive. They appreciated questions. They were mostly happy to answer.
But then things started to change. Like the way it usually happens with the change at CxO level. It’s then someone came up with an idea to improve productivity. Apparently to make customers happy. It’s a great idea but the solution they implemented wasn’t. What management came up surprised everyone. Specially the employees who had spent years there. They were forcing every employee to spend at least 9.25 hours inside office campus. This was regardless how much work one did outside. As per employment contact we were bound to spend 9.25 hours at office. Every CxO who was questioned asked employees refer contract and said nothing else. They thought it was fair.
What happened next was not surprising. Everyone I knew spent full 9.25 hours at office. But productivity, meh, didn’t improve. Most people spent hours in canteen, walking etc. Of course management saw this. They made algorithm changes to count only hours spent inside a building as working hours. But management failed to realize one thing. They were dealing with a bunch of unethical engineers. This bunch will find a way. People started browsing. Social media had just sprouted. Every one was engaged. The management went one more step. They installed filters to block “Entertainment” sites. After that employees started spending hours on phone or drinking coffee. As far as I know, the productivity of unethical employees didn’t improve.
In the mean time what happened to project heroes? First of all they were doing the work of 80%. Now they couldn’t go home on the days they finished early. Nor they couldn’t watch or listen to some soothing music after working till 4 am. They really got pissed. They were the one’s who were questioning the management. Answers from management were useless. Most of them reduced their work to official 9.25 hours. They stopped taking calls outside office hours. Some left the company. By then it was 2010 and I quit too
I don’t know what happened to productivity or quality after that. I doubt it improved. I always wondered who lost?
Now lets talk about the present issue. Issue of Indians not paying tax. The number of Indians paying direct income tax 1 is anywhere between 1% to 4%. It depends on where you get your information. Let’s say its 4%. It looks extremely low. We need more people to pay taxes. One way to do it – is by catching those who are cheating. So bring laws and systems to check all the tax paying citizens to see if they are cheating. It’s common sense right? But sometimes one needs to go beyond common sense to see if it achieves the goal. The goal here is to make more people pay taxes without hurting honest tax payers. But politicians have started looking at newspaper headlines as success. For them every problem looks like something that’s waiting for a technical solution. No politician or bureaucrat is thinking beyond a technical solution. Everyone seems to think technical solutions are magic. But like all other technical solutions to ethical problems, this one is going to fail as well. Cheaters are not going to stop because of a technical hurdle. They will find a way around. In the meantime its the honest who suffers in the system. Because no one paid attention to the side-effects of this technical solution.
Attaching Aadhaar to tax payment system makes it a huge surveillance system. Tax departments across the world including in India have abused their power before. Aadhaar linking would give them more power without any accountability. There is no visible improvement either. The Aadhaar act which got passed (backdoor act?2) gives no rights to citizen. So you can guess who is going to suffer.
Technologists in India have to think beyond the technology or they will become men or women with hammer. They will cause more harm in long-term than anything useful. Time to think.