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Examining the Ethics of E-business
Our columnist argues that we must come to terms quickly with the environmental and social issues of the Web.
Posted Oct 25, 2000
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A version of this article first appeared in Computers & Finance, a magazine published 10 times a year in London by TBC Research. Through its comprehensive portfolio of magazines, events and research, TBC Research is dedicated to helping senior business professionals make more informed technology decisions.

"The prospectus stated that the required capital was half a million, in five thousand shares of 100 pounds each, deposit two pounds per share. Each subscriber, paying his deposit, was entitled to 100 pounds per annum per share. How this immense profit was to be obtained, [the proposer] did not condescend to inform [the buyers] at that time, but promised that in a month full particulars should be duly announced, and a call made for the remaining 98 pounds of the subscription.


Next morning, at nine o'clock, this great man opened an office in Cornhill. Crowds beset his door, and when he shut up at three o'clock, he found that no less than one thousand shares had been subscribed for, and the deposits paid. He was thus, in five hours, the winner of 2,000 pounds. He was philosophical enough to be contented with his venture, and set off the same evening for the Continent. He was never heard of again."

This extract from Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds by Charles Mackay, published in 1841, concerning one of the South Sea scams, bears a remarkable similarity to today's market in technology stocks.

Dot coms have extracted billions of dollars from investors around the world and, as their market capitalisations start to collapse, we are left wondering whether the hyping of these companies has been ethical. Will we look back on this adventure as the South Sea Bubble of the early 21st century? Security shortcomings continue to threaten the fabric of the Web for business use and yet are ignored by many users. Are we losing our grip on what really matters?

New statistics emerge on a near-daily basis of the ever-increasing use of PCs and the Internet. This trend raises real fears. People are gradually replacing human contact with access to their computer screens. Students are graduating who have spent more of their childhood playing with computers than with friends. Adults are now spending hours playing with the grown-up equivalent--e-mails and the Web. Video conferencing and Webcams are reducing social contact still further. It took several decades before the tobacco industry recognised the dangers of smoking. Do we need an equivalent health warning for IT?

Furthermore, serious environmental problems are arising from the huge numbers of PCs and other IT equipment discarded in the stampede towards more powerful and up-to-date technology. Recycling in this area is still in its infancy.

On a more positive note, e-business may start to reshape the transport system. Already the need to travel to work is mitigated by the opportunity to connect remotely to the office. If the promised business-to-consumer revolution ever does take place, more goods will be delivered to our homes, reducing the need for personal transport, and creating economies of scale in the distribution channel.

The downside is that rural communities and local shops will come under increasing pressure as distribution channels develop. As fewer people need to travel for their shopping, community transport provision may suffer.

Personally, I remain sceptical about the take-up rate of business-to-consumer purchasing, so I am not too worried about this. However, technology is presenting a real threat to the culture of the workplace. The Web lets us communicate without face-to-face or even voice contact. As more of us work from home or "hot desks," personal contact becomes ever rarer. How many of us choose to e-mail colleagues rather than make the 10-yard trip to speak to them? Accountants may have a reputation for being reserved, but this is going a bit far.

We also have to question the value of time spent working with a computer. Machines still break down every day. Many people now receive and reply to hundreds of e-mails a day. How many of these really add value to what we are doing? Why is this apparently acceptable when junk mail isn't?

The Web has opened up a world of information to us, but pornography is still the most widely sourced material. Hours are wasted searching the Internet to no avail. Information overload becomes an ever more common cause of stress.

An organisation called Forum for the Future is running a project entitled Digital Futures, to look at the environmental and social impacts of e-business. The forum has been formed in partnership with government to look at a number of issues, and the project encompasses transport and planning, dot com ethics and the social exclusion of those without Web access. The project started in February this year and initial reports will be produced this month.

Project coordinator James Wilsdon sees room for optimism, both for e-business and the environment. There is evidence that CO2 emissions will be reduced through more efficient distribution and reduced car use, and the drive towards transparency of information may make environmental data more widely available. Benefits may arise from the declining need for storage space due to improved stock management. Wilsdon sees the Web as a way to help consumers exercise their ethical and environmental responsibilities more effectively.

While this work is good news I believe that individually and corporately it is now a good time to take stock of these issues and make them a core agenda item when considering future IT investment. Let us ensure that we come to terms quickly with the environmental and social issues of the Web and, as it were, stick the appropriate health warning on the side of the PC before too many lives are adversely affected.

Further details on the Digital Futures project are available from James Wilsdon at Forum for the Future, j.wilsdon@forumforthefuture.org.uk.

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