With inspiration from Charles Dickens, Jon G Hall CITP FBCS explains the need to make IT leadership good for society.

Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is an astonishing literary achievement. Its opening captures the essence of an age:

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity...’

And when were these times? Importantly, during the French Revolution and, in England, during the industrial revolution. Importantly for us because, today, we’re experiencing our very own revolution: AI’s seemingly unstoppable rise. And, naturally, these days too feel like the best and worst of times.

On one hand, we’re seeing AI show its potential as a tool which can help society solve many of today’s grand-scale problems, like climate change, ageing populations and the shift away from carbon-based fuels. But AI also has the potential for its very own worst of times: it poses existential questions around employment, truth and trustworthiness.

Imaginative artificial intelligence

All this leads to a fascinating question: how would Dickens view today’s revolutionary times? We can’t, of course, ask him — but we can ask an AI, and I did just that. I prompted a well-known LLM: ‘How can we make technology good for society? Written in the style of A Tale of Two Cities’. Sadly, the results were a little anodyne so, here’s my imagined response.

‘It is the best of times, it is the worst of times; it is the age of knowledge, it is the age of conspiracy; it is the epoch of truth, it is the epoch of lies, it is the spring of progress, it is the winter of change.

‘We have weaponised aspiration and monetised opportunity. It is everything measured and nothing understood. We each know our tribe but not our home. It is clearer than crystal that, at least to the billionaires of the technology preserves of medium and ad-buy, the digital revolution and its concomitant chaos is good news.

‘Empowered by technology, the sparring Zucks and Musks carry unheeded their divine rights with a high hand. Thus do myriads of small creatures - the data’d creatures of their worldly attention - enable conduct of their greatness.

‘And through this, two socio-technical paradoxes are revealed: social media has brought about new forms of loneliness even though we are more connected than ever; the greatest ever tools for communication are primarily used to manipulate and misinform. All these things, and a thousand like them have come to pass in and close upon the dear old year two thousand and twenty three.’

What we’re seeing is what I like to think of as The Dickens Paradox. Thanks to technology, certainly at the human level, we’ve never been so well connected and we’ve never been so isolated.

This paradox – this best of times and this worst of times – doesn’t, however, seem to affect IT-led organisations which are turbocharged by technology. Rather than experiencing manipulation or isolation as a result of social media, for example, they thrive on it and are empowered through its use.

In some ways, we are living in the best of times for tech businesses and the worst of times for tech users.

So, how do we level the playing field? For me, the answer is leadership. Specifically, we need leaders who are focused on delivering value – both for society and shareholders – through technology and tech-led innovations.

For you

Be part of something bigger, join BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.

Along with being value focused, we also need leaders who are capable, dedicated and accountable.

It's not a well-kept secret that BCS' purpose is to ‘Make IT good for society’. As the UK continues its tech revolution, I'm calling on you – as leaders and aspiring leaders - to ‘Make IT leadership good for society’, by delivering your personal IT leadership to society in the same way you have done for your organisation.

When you read (or reread) BCS' purpose, focus on what it says about IT leadership. Reflect on whether you're doing all you can to lead. We all wish IT was better for society. Dickens said: ‘The most important thing in life is to stop saying “I wish” and start saying “I will.”’ Your leadership, within your organisation, has paved the way for beneficial technological transformation. It's now time to give society the benefit of your leadership too.