Wearable Technology; an Ethical Nightmare for PR?

Wearable Technology; an Ethical Nightmare for PR?

In an ever-changing technological landscape it’s important to sometimes question the ethics surrounding the technologies being developed. Today, wearable technology is all around us from fitness bands to smart watches, Google Glass and even devices that can embed into the human body.

By 2018 it’s expected that the wearable technology market in the U.S. will have a value of $12.8bn. The UK is catching up fast with Amazon UK launching it’s own wearable technology store yesterday (7th July 2014).

Yesterday evening the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) became the first professional marketing body to officially debate the potential ethical implications of wearable technology. At an event hosted in the House of Commons, well known figures Neville Hobson, Stephen Davies, Stephen Waddington and Claire Walker debated the motion:

“Wearable Technology is an Ethical Nightmare for PR, Marketing and Communications Professionals”

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Stephen Davies and Neville Hobson agreed with the motion. Listing the broad range of device uses, they argued that we are only seeing the very start of how wearable technology can enhance our lives and therefore the strong influence it could have. Wearable tech, they suggested, can fulfil purposes across sectors and is already proving especially effective in healthcare. In their view, the ethical use of wearable technology is full of nuances and “it depends” elements that must be debated so new ethical frameworks can be constructed.

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 12.44.05Their opponents, Stephen Waddington and Claire Walker, could be considered the official voices of the CIPR in the debate. Highlighting how the growth of wearable tech is an opportunity for the PR industry, they suggested that the ethics surrounding wearable devices are already covered by an existing ethical framework, the CIPR’s Code of Conduct.

The growth of wearable technology has existed in the mainstream for the last 10 years in the forms of portable recording devices and cameras and so we only need worry about the PR practitioners who are not signed up to the CIPR’s Code of Conduct.

Once the speakers had finished presenting their arguments, the debate was opened to the floor with a total of 18 contributors adding their voice. Opinions were mixed. Statements from the floor voiced concerns about the fair use of data and how agencies should behave with it.

One comment highlighted how the ethical use of wearable tech goes beyond the PR industry, a key focus for tech companies instead. At times I felt the ethical use of wearable tech was being questioned, not just its role in PR.

The motion failed by almost 2 votes to 1. The majority of practitioners did not see wearable technology as an ethical nightmare for PR.

However, at no point during the debate was a question raised about what we mean by ‘ethically good’.

What could be considered ethically good for PR agencies may not always be in the best interests of the public. For example, an agency could represent a fast food chain and influence wearable tech users to gorge on unhealthy food by providing instantly actionable insights into a user’s surroundings. This could lead to higher sales for the food chain but would be based on an unhealthy influence, so therefore not have a greater purpose to society. This is one example of many.

As one commentator said (to paraphrase): “If we were debating this question in North Korea perhaps we would reach a different decision”.

I’m thankful that the CIPR decided to stage such an important debate, although personally disappointed by the result. I believe the failed motion highlights just how early the development of this technology still is.

The use of wearable tech will fundamentally reinvent the process of PR from a stakeholder approach, leading to more individualistic communications. Potentially it even renders key theories around social media worthless. For this we’ll need new ethical frameworks.


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