During the early 1990s, I was visiting with the
president of a top-ranked graduate management
institute in India. The institute was so popular
among students entering college that it required
every applicant to sit for an admissions test.
The test typically included at least one essay.
The institute’s president told me that one year
he asked the applicants to write an essay on the
statement, “There is no right way to do a wrong
thing.” The essays submitted were too brief and
incoherent. It took him much less time to read
them, but he was disappointed in the outcome.
I believe this is almost always true of
everyone, not just students. We know what the
mantra is, but we do not know how it enters our
general behavior. We understand
the concept, but we cannot
seem to apply it well enough
to make it second nature in us.
For example, on the reality TV
show Shark Tank, one budding
innovator showcased her
product, a mirror called Skinny
Mirror that made people look
a few sizes slimmer than they
actually are in reality. 1 The idea
is to boost the mirror users’ self-confidence at the
cost of lying to them, perhaps in the hope that
they will strive to improve after looking at what
they could look like. But lying is lying, regardless
of its form. As a result, the “sharks” unanimously
rejected the product idea as repulsive. Thus, we
might cross the line not because we do not
know what or where the line is, but because we
just cannot incorporate it into our daily duties
Means do not justify ends. Something that is
wrong is wrong, regardless of the path followed
to get there. However, I am particularly puzzled
by the fact that technology is often victimized
to arrive at the wrong ends. The only difference
across a timeline of decades is that, in the past,
the impact was limited to the organization
and its immediate stakeholders; now, the
scalability of technology delivers the outcome in
a massively pervasive fashion. Despite all that
technology brings to improve lives and the living
environment, it just cannot seem to shield itself
from creative deployment for the wrong ends.
The underlying human element is the culprit,
although at first sight it seems like technology is the
defendant. Take, for example, the most recent crisis
at Volkswagen (VW). While the details are sketchy
at this stage, it appears that senior engineers at
VW embedded a code in the company’s emission
software to manipulate emission results. The code
became active when the emission levels were
measured; at all other times, the
emissions were in violation of
the benchmark requirements.
As a result, the company, which
is the backbone of the German
economy, is now in deep trouble.
The VW incident has left many
people wondering if they can
trust any business to do the right
thing. And yet, this is not the
only case; these days, there are
many incursions into moral misbehaviors and to be
accomplished, several of them rely on technology.
To a degree, IT permits anonymity (along with
the scale), which, in turn, may invoke indulgence
to moral temptations. Ashley Madison is a
graphic example of this. Empowered by IT, the
entire business model rested upon the idea that
if individuals wished to indulge, the site would
both facilitate it and help them hide it. The eternal
temptation is vividly described in the company’s
logo: “Life is short. Have an affair.” The business
model here is upside-down. I wonder if a chief
executive can set the right tone when his company’s
business objectives are improper, if not illegal. The
virtualization of an extramarital affair does not
make it right. However, in providing the service,
Ashley Madison’s success lies in human nature,
which may be inclined toward believing that
Vasant Raval, DBA, CISA,
ACMA, is a professor of
accountancy at Creighton
University (Omaha, Nebraska,
USA). The coauthor of two
books on information systems
and security, his areas of
teaching and research interest
include information security
and corporate governance.
Opinions expressed in this
column are his own and not
those of Creighton University.
He can be reached at
Is Information Technology Responsible
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“Despite all that technology brings to improve lives and the living environment, it just
cannot seem to shield itself
from creative deployment for
the wrong ends.