Gartner picks digital ethics and privacy as a strategic trend for 2019

Analyst Gartner, best known for crunching device marketshare data; charting technology hype cycles; and churning out predictive listicles of emergent capabilities at software’s cutting edge has now put businesses on watch that as well as dabbling in the usual crop of nascent technologies organizations need to be thinking about wider impacts next year — on both individuals and society.

Call it a sign of the times but digital ethics and privacy has been named as one of Gartner’s top ten strategic technology trends for 2019. That, my friends, is progress of a sort. Albeit, it also underlines how low certain tech industry practices have sunk that ethics and privacy is suddenly making a cutting-edge trend agenda, a couple of decades into the mainstream consumer Internet.

The analyst’s top picks do include plenty of techie stuff too, of course. Yes blockchain is in there. Alongside the usual string of caveats that the “technologies and concepts are immature, poorly understood and unproven in mission-critical, at-scale business operations”.

So too, on the software development side, is AI-driven development — with the analyst sneaking a look beyond the immediate future to an un-date-stamped new age of the ‘non-techie techie’ (aka the “citizen application developer”) it sees coming down the pipe, when everyone will be a pro app dev thanks to AI-driven tools automatically generating the necessary models. But that’s definitely not happening in 2019.

See also: Augmented analytics eventually (em)powering “citizen data science”.

On the hardware front, Gartner uses the umbrella moniker of autonomous things to bundle the likes of drones, autonomous vehicles and robots in one big mechanical huddle — spying a trend of embodied AIs that “automate functions previously performed by humans” and work in swarming concert. Again, though, don’t expect too much of these bots quite yet — collectively, or, well, individually either.

It’s also bundling AR, VR and MR (aka the mixed reality of eyewear like Magic Leap One or Microsoft’s Hololens) into immersive experiences — in which “the spaces that surround us define ‘the computer’ rather than the individual devices. In effect, the environment is the computer” — so you can see what it’s spying there.

On the hardcore cutting edge of tech there’s quantum computing to continue to tantalize with its fantastically potent future potential. This tech, Gartner suggests, could be used to “model molecular interactions at atomic levels to accelerate time to market for new cancer-treating drugs” — albeit, once again, there’s absolutely no timeline suggested. And QC remains firmly lodged in an “emerging state”.

One nearer-term tech trend is dubbed the empowered edge, with Gartner noting that rising numbers of connected devices are driving processing back towards the end-user — to reduce latency and traffic. Distributed servers working as part of the cloud services mix is the idea, supported, over the longer term, by maturing 5G networks. Albeit, again, 5G hasn’t been deployed at any scale yet. Though some rollouts are scheduled for 2019.

Connected devices also feature in Gartner’s picks of smart spaces (aka sensor-laden places like smart cities, the ‘smart home’ or digital workplaces — where “people, processes, services and things” come together to create “a more immersive, interactive and automated experience”); and so-called digital twins; which isn’t as immediately bodysnatcherish as it first sounds, though does refer to “digital representation of a real-world entity or system” driven by an estimated 20BN connected sensors/endpoints which it reckons will be in the wild by 2020

But what really stands out in Gartner’s list of developing and/or barely emergent strategic tech trends is digital ethics and privacy — given the concept is not reliant on any particular technology underpinning it; yet is being (essentially) characterized as an emergent property of other already deployed (but unnamed) technologies. So is actually in play — in a way that others on the list aren’t yet (or aren’t at the same mass scale).

The analyst dubs digital ethics and privacy a “growing concern for individuals, organisations and governments”, writing: “People are increasingly concerned about how their personal information is being used by organisations in both the public and private sector, and the backlash will only increase for organisations that are not proactively addressing these concerns.”

Yes, people are increasingly concerned about privacy. Though ethics and privacy are hardly new concepts (or indeed new discussion topics). So the key point is really the strategic obfuscation of issues that people do in fact care an awful lot about, via the selective and non-transparent application of various behind-the-scenes technologies up to now — as engineers have gone about collecting and using people’s data without telling them how, why and what they’re actually doing with it.

Therefore, the key issue is about the abuse of trust that has been an inherent and seemingly foundational principle of the application of far too much cutting edge technology up to now. Especially, of course, in the adtech sphere.

And which, as Gartner now notes, is coming home to roost for the industry — via people’s “growing concern” about what’s being done to them via their data. (For “individuals, organisations and governments” you can really just substitute ‘society’ in general.)

Technology development done in a vacuum with little or no consideration for societal impacts is therefore itself the catalyst for the accelerated concern about digital ethics and privacy that Gartner is here identifying rising into strategic view.

It didn’t have to be that way though. Unlike ‘blockchain’ or ‘digital twins’, ethics and privacy are not at all new concepts. They’ve been discussion topics for philosophers and moralists for scores of generations and, literally, thousands of years. Which makes engineering without consideration of human and societal impacts a very spectacular and stupid failure indeed.

And now Gartner is having to lecture organizations on the importance of building trust. Which is kind of incredible to see, set alongside bleeding edge science like quantum computing. Yet here we seemingly are in kindergarten…

It writes: “Any discussion on privacy must be grounded in the broader topic of digital ethics and the trust of your customers, constituents and employees. While privacy and security are foundational components in building trust, trust is actually about more than just these components. Trust is the acceptance of the truth of a statement without evidence or investigation. Ultimately an organisation’s position on privacy must be driven by its broader position on ethics and trust. Shifting from privacy to ethics moves the conversation beyond ‘are we compliant’ toward ‘are we doing the right thing.”

The other unique thing about digital ethics and privacy is that it cuts right across all other technology areas in this trend list.

You can — and should — rightly ask what does blockchain mean for privacy? Or quantum computing for ethics? How could the empowered edge be used to enhance privacy? And how might smart spaces erode it? How can we ensure ethics get baked into AI-driven development from the get-go? How could augmented analytics help society as a whole — but which individuals might it harm? And so the questions go on.

Or at least they should go on. You should never stop asking questions where ethics and privacy are concerned. Not asking questions was the great strategic fuck-up condensed into Facebook’s ‘move fast and break things’ anti-humanitarian manifesto of yore. Y’know, the motto it had to ditch after it realized that breaking all the things didn’t scale.

Because apparently no one at the company had thought to ask how breaking everyone’s stuff would help it engender trust. And so claiming compliance without trust, as Facebook now finds itself trying to, really is the archetypal Sisyphean struggle.