by Thomas Wailgum

The Killer Apps of Capitalism

Apr 23, 2010
Enterprise Applications

IT's advances are human beings' gain? Not necessarily. Case in point: WellPoint's 'innovative' new customer app.

I’m not here to condemn technology. To fear-monger with Minority Report or Terminator doomsday scenarios. To regale you with apocalyptic “end of life as we know it” tales or “burn all the PCs” hysteria—all resulting from human beings’ blind overreliance on technology that will destroy the life and liberty we enjoy.

No, you won’t hear that from me.

There is, however, one thought I’d like you to consider, or remember, as each year brings us more advances in computing power: Who is actually making the ultimate decisions in businesses?

I raise this because behind most every weighty corporate decision or strategy today, there is a technology component enabling it. In truth, many of these decisions or organizational insights were nearly impossible to make decades ago.

Now, millions of customer records and corporate interactions can be examined with ease; seemingly disconnected swaths of data points can be mined, categorized, analyzed and presented to executives and line of business managers; and new trends and patterns discovered can show profit and loss at both granular and enterprise levels.

This is the almighty power of 21st century tech, these killer apps of capitalism. And we like them.

But there is often a powerful human downside.

The story comes from a recent Reuters article by Murray Waas, with the headline: “WellPoint Routinely Targets Breast Cancer Patients.” The investigative article looked at the stories of women who, shortly after being diagnosed with breast cancer, discovered that that their WellPoint health insurance had been canceled. Reports Waas:

[The women] had no idea that WellPoint was using a computer algorithm that automatically targeted them and every other policyholder recently diagnosed with breast cancer. The software triggered an immediate fraud investigation, as the company searched for some pretext to drop their policies, according to government regulators and investigators. Once the women were singled out, they say, the insurer then canceled their policies based on either erroneous or flimsy information.

The article is as fascinating as it is tragic. Anyone can feel for the women, some unable to get any treatment now because they have no insurance.

WellPoint’s silence on the matter is deafening. But from WellPoint executives’ point of view, one can argue, they are simply reaping the benefits of sophisticated analytical tools. The results may make many of us aghast, but WellPoint is reaping what the high-tech industry has sown for several decades.

That’s one—very unpopular—way of looking at it, of course.

WellPoint is not alone: The financial services and credit-card industries, for instance, use applications that cull its customer databases all the time—who is profitable and who isn’t? Then a decision: Do we want to keep this person as a customer?

While technology is the enabler in all of this, technology isn’t to blame. We must remember that real, live human beings are making decisions from the software’s computational capabilities. We still have to hold the people accountable.

Technology is unemotional. Technology doesn’t care. Technology is blind to the plight of a 50-year-old unemployed woman battling breast cancer who now finds herself with no health insurance, little recourse and an uncertain future.

To WellPoint, I would say this: Just because IT applications are dispassionate and without feeling doesn’t mean we—the humans using the tech—have to be, too.

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