What Does Tech Owe Society? The Intersection of Trust, Digital Ethics and ESG
By Nicola Acutt
I never imagined working for a tech company at the start of my career. For the longest time, I thought my path would keep me in academia. I set out to inspire class after class of business students at Presidio Graduate School to care about sustainability. I made sure they all read “Tempered Radicals” by Debra Meyerson, a guide to driving positive change from inside organizations. And I encouraged them to be those change agents for a better, greener world when they entered the corporate space.
What led me to give up teaching and become a corporate change agent myself? I’ve always been motivated by the desire to make a difference in the world—to create as much good as I possibly can. And when the chance to join VMware came up in 2010, it was clear to me that the future—of sustainability, education and business—would be shaped by technology. So I had to say yes to the opportunity and jump in with both feet. I wanted to be part of making sure the future of technology could also support a better future for the world.
More than a decade later, technology has become more enmeshed in the fabric of our lives than I could have anticipated. It’s part of the foundation for how people learn, work and connect with each other, especially in the past two years. But with this centrality comes mixed feelings.
We’re long past the rose-colored heyday of people thinking Silicon Valley would save the world. Yes, technology can enable extraordinary advancements that make our lives easier, solve complex problems, and improve productivity, connection and communication. But it can just as easily cost jobs, sow social divisions and exacerbate inequality.
These tensions have only been amplified in recent years. Increased regulatory scrutiny, misinformation on social media, and incidents like Cambridge Analytica, SolarWinds and the recent Log4j vulnerability have sent trust in tech plummeting. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer found that trust in technology reached all-time lows in 17 out of 27 countries last year. This was particularly pronounced in the United States, where tech dropped from first to ninth place in trust by sector between 2020 and 2021.
In short: Tech is playing a bigger role in our world than ever before—and collectively, we’ve never trusted it less. So where do we go from here? Answering this question is a key reason why trust is the third and final outcome we’re pursuing as part of VMware’s 2030 Agenda.
"We care about customers trusting us with their data, relying on the security of our products and counting on our people. But we also recognize that our obligations are much bigger than that."
I’ll confess: The inclusion of trust within an ESG framework has caused more than a few furrowed brows, even inside our own organization. Shouldn’t trust be table stakes for any reputable company? And of course, the answer to that is yes. We care about customers trusting us with their data, relying on the security of our products and counting on our people. But we also recognize that our obligations are much bigger than that.
VMware is part of a larger tech ecosystem whose rules and norms are still being created. As an industry, we have yet to reach a consensus around what constitutes digital ethics. I’ve heard some say that you can’t attribute problems enabled by technology to the technology itself—that it’s an agnostic tool wielded by individuals who are ultimately responsible for what they do with it. But this has always struck me as a misleading argument. Tech can’t be neutral because it’s created by people. And people aren’t neutral. Acknowledging this is the first step in our industry getting real about what we owe a world we’re fundamentally reshaping by the day.
We also can’t ignore that the digital infrastructure we create is under unprecedented levels of malicious threat. Cybersecurity has traditionally been viewed as a technology issue. But with so much information being shared online and so many industries relying on digital tools to conduct business-critical operations, cyberattacks and data breaches can have significant societal impacts.
This issue is especially top of mind for me this week, during Data Privacy Week. It’s an annual opportunity for businesses to reflect on how they can be more intentional and transparent about collecting, using and securing personal data. And it gives me hope that one day, cyber resilience will be part of every company’s ESG strategy.
That’s what we’re doing at VMware. We’re holding ourselves to the highest transparency and reporting standards not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because we want to raise the bar for our entire industry. We’re embedding ideas like Zero Trust security and privacy by design into our products not because we want them to be competitive features, but because we know it’s what we owe our customers, the end users for our products, and society as a whole.
I’ve previously written about why sustainability and equity are part of the 2030 Agenda. They’re not unique. These two issues are so universal and so urgent that they should be on every company’s agenda, no matter what your business or product is. But being stewards for trust, security, and privacy in the ever expanding and encompassing digital world is a responsibility that uniquely falls on the shoulders of the tech industry. It’s time to start bearing the weight.