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The Tech Sector Paradox: Modern Day Jedi or the Dark Side?

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While reading Saturday’s U.S. edition of the Financial Times, I was struck by the juxtaposition of two articles: an opinion piece by Simon Kuper, “In Tech We Trust” and, a news story by Richard Waters, “Back Door’ Spying Claims Set to Hit Tech Groups.”

So stark was the contrast that a “Star Wars” metaphor came to mind. Are tech entrepreneurs emerging as the modern-day Jedi, acting as forces for good against all which ails the world? Or, are technology companies going to “the Dark Side,” secretly partnering with government(s) to spy on enemies of the state, both foreign and domestic?

At the heart of both pieces is the notion of trust in the tech sector and its leaders.

In Kuper’s piece, he argues that society has lost faith in governments and politicians to solve a range of problems from the economic to the social. Picking up the slack, “Google’s Eric Schmidt negotiates with North Korea, Jeff Bezos tries to save newspapers, Mark Zuckerberg plots to get the world’s poor online and Bill Gates fights infectious disease.”

Kuper continues – “In a tech-utopian worldview, mobile phones are saving Africa, social media are empowering activists and Google’s driverless car will end the human misery that is commuting. Hopes for a solution to climate change now rest more on Silicon Valley than on Washington.”

In contrast, Waters’ news piece reports that Edward Snowden is claiming that the United States National Security Administration (NSA) has been working with American technology companies to put back-door surveillance systems into products for spying purposes. While Waters reports that Snowden’s claims have not named names – and the story does not speculate – it does say, “…the disclosures are set to trigger distrust of U.S. technology suppliers elsewhere in the world.”

These pieces beg questions about the state of trust in the tech sector. My firm’s research – The Edelman Trust Barometer – has ranked the tech sector as the most trusted sector in each of the 13 years we’ve conducted the study. Both, opinion elites and the general population, place tech at the top of the most trusted sector list. I believe the contrast demonstrated in the two stories from the Financial Times threatens to unsettle that ranking.

While people in general are accustomed to black and white contrasts – we trust something or we do not, we believe something is good or it is bad – the tech sector is quickly slipping into the gray. To keep with “Star Wars,” Anakin Skywalker was once pure and good. However, the death of his mother made him vulnerable to the influences of the Dark Side, morphing him into my generation’s most vaunted villain, Darth Vader.

I am not suggesting the Messrs.’ Gates, Schmidt, et al, are staring into the abyss of the Dark Side from their perch on the bridge of the Millennium Falcon. I am suggesting, however, that claims of non-transparent behavior from companies in the tech sector combined with security failures at financial institutions and other consumer services companies threaten to undermine trust in the entire sector.

The tech sector, in particular the U.S. tech sector, would be well advised to understand that trust is granted based upon five, closely linked factors: management performance, social purpose beyond commercial goals, quality of products and services, integrity of the enterprise and its leaders and engagement with stakeholders on the issues that matter to them.

I fear that the historically high levels of trust granted to the sector – buoyed largely by the good and noble work by the likes of Gates – are in danger. It is time for the industry’s leaders to link the purpose-driven work of its handful of leaders back to the integrity and purpose of its businesses.

As the transformation of Anakin Skywalker demonstrates, the Force can be used for good or not so good.

Alan VanderMolen is vice chairman, DJE Holdings, president and CEO, global practices.

Image by Christopher Stadler.
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