Only Technology Can’t Solve Ethical Problems

The title of this post is from my old blog post which was supposed to be published on internal blog site of a huge IT company. I never finished it and hence never got published.  The title perfectly matches this post as well and hence I am reusing it. 

Let me tell you that story that I wrote for internal blog we begin the present one. It’s probably 2007, I was working for one of India’s biggest IT company. I had already spent four years at that company by then. I was quite outspoken. The best part was management was great, they appreciated questions and were mostly happy to answer. 

But then things started to change slowly like the way it usually happens with the change in CxO level. It’s then someone came up with an idea to improve the productivity to make customers happy. It’s a great idea but the solution wasn’t. What management came up surprised everyone who had spent time there. Solution was every employee have to spend least 9.25 hours inside office campus regardless how much work you did anywhere. This on the surface looks very fair. As per employment contact we were bound to spend 9.25 hours at office. Every CxO who was questioned asked employees to refer contract and said nothing else.
What happened next was not surprising. Everyone I know spent 9.25 full hours at office. But productivity, meh, didn’t improve. Most people spent hours in canteen, walking etc. Of course management saw this they made the algorithm changes to count only those hours spent inside a building as working hours. But management didn’t realise they were dealing with set of unethical engineers and they will find a way. People started browsing, Social media had just sprouted, every one was engaged. The management went one more step and installed web-sense to block the “Entertainment” sites and they just forgot people were spending hours on phone or at desk drinking coffee. As far as I saw the productivity of the unethical employees didn’t improve.

In the mean time what happened to project heroes? First of all they were doing the work of 80% of the people. Now they couldn’t go home on the days they finished early or they couldn’t watch or listen to some soothing music after working till 4 am without sleep. They really got pissed and they were the one’s who were questioning management. Most reduced their work to official 9.25 hours, stopped taking calls outside work, others left the company. By then it was 2010 and I left too. 

I don’t know what happened to productivity or quality after that. I doubt it improved and I always wondered who lost?

Now lets talk about the present issue of Indian’s not paying tax. Number of Indian’s paying direct income tax 1 is anywhere between 1% to 4% depending on where you get your info. Let’s say its 4%. It looks extremely low. We need more people to pay taxes. One way to do it is catch those who are cheating. So bring laws and systems to check all the tax paying citizens to see if they are cheating. It’s the common sense right. But sometimes one needs to go beyond common sense to see if it achieves the goal of getting more people to pay tax without hurting honest tax payers. But when you are looking for newspaper headlines as success every problem looks like something that’s waiting for technical solution that’s available. No one has gone beyond the technical solution. Everyone seems to think technical solutions are magic. But like all other technical solutions to ethical problem this one is going to fail as well. Because cheaters are not going to stop because there is a technical hurdle. They are going to find a way around. In the meantime its the honest one who suffers in the system. Because no one paid attention to the side-effects of the new implementation.

Attaching unique identity to tax payments that’s used across the systems that are not related tax makes it a huge surveillance system. Tax departments across the world including India have abused their power before. This would give more power to tax department without accountability or any visible improvement. The Aadhaar act which got passed (backdoor act?) without any public consultation or debate in Rajya Sabha 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 wo/men with hammer. They will cause more harm in long-term than anything useful. Time to think.

  1. All Indians pay huge indirect tax.

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