Moral Responsibility of Technologists

By allowing the government to construct a massive surveillance apparatus, the field had abused the public trust. […]

My sense is that politics is there, whether one acknowledges it or not. When you have an ostensibly apolitical department, but you scratch beneath the covers and discover that three-quarters of the faculty are funded by the Department of Defense, well, in fact that’s not apolitical. That is very much working in support of a particular ethos, and one simply hasn’t called it forth.

From The Moral Failure of Computer Scientists in the Atlantic.

2 replies on “Moral Responsibility of Technologists”

As RPI professor Langdon Winner has written about in “Autonomous Technology” and elsewhere (and that kind of thinking sadly got him essentially kicked out of a professorship at MIT before finding a new home at RPI), technical systems can have their own dynamics, and it can be hard for techies in the middle of all that to see the big picture. So, politics can be and routinely is embedded into technical systems through a set of choices we make as we design them, before setting our Frankenstein’s monsters into motion. While we can’t know the full consequences of anything we do, that’s why it is still good to think about the social context of things before we make them, because artifacts do have politics.

To a large social system, people are replaceable parts. People may think they are in control, but if they as individuals don’t follow procedure, they will be replaced by someone who will, just like you or I might replace a burnt-out lightbulb in a lamp at home. That is true even of the US President. If those computer scientists don’t bring in defense grants, they will be replaced by ones who do, given so much of the US surplus is now earmarked for “defense” for a variety of reasons.

As Lawrence Lessig wrote about in Code 2.0, there are at least four ways to shape human behavior: rules, norms, incentives, and architecture. One can ask how those four things shape the current behavior of CS professors and how they might be changed? But that is a really tough question. I feel a basic income may be one option as an answer. But if you look up “The Big Crunch” essay by Dr. David Goodstein of Caltech (written when he was Vice-Provost there), or “Disciplined Minds” written by Jeff Schmidt when he was editor of Physics Today (he got fired for writing it), or Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz, you’ll see the beginnings have how deep the cultural problems are. As above, two PhDs were essentially dismissed for bring up these kinds of issues about academia.

Still, taking high defense intelligence spending as a given, what can we do about it? Personally, as I mentioned in another reply to your blog on “Let’s Encrypt”, I don’t feel encryption is a big part of the answer (even if encryption may be important for other reasons like preventing fraud or making it more likely you’re talking to who you think you are talking to). I’ve suggested elsewhere that the Peace movement has to (forgive the military metaphor) take the security high ground. 🙂 The Peace movement needs to argue that we all need security, and that the movement is all for true security, it is just the way we go about getting that security that the Peace movement may differ about. Peace activists need to promote a coherent vision of how we are more likely to get security in various ways that come from increasing community — as opposed to current approaches related to terrorizing people including with drones. Terror is something governments are quite effective at if you read Noam Chomsky’s discussion about the word “terrorism”; the word is just generally redefined politically so it is not what people in power do (even when it is by any objective standard).

Perhaps the best argument against policies for undermining privacy and computer security is what recently happened with the US Office of Personnel Management data breach, where someone, perhaps China, got all the personnel records of all US government employees (or applicants) including it is claimed those with secret clearance. While not discussed much, that breach is probably the worst blow ever to US security since it potentially compromises every single international field agent, and also makes it easier to profile and potentially blackmail anyone with a security clearance. The NSA is not only paid to snoop; paradoxically it is also paid to protect US government security. If it did not have a conflict-of-interest in that mission, maybe it could have focused more on privacy and so defended our country from potentially the worst intelligence disaster of US history. That’s why the USA putting almost all it’s money into snooping (including weakening encryption and putting back doors everywhere) instead of protecting us all was a bad idea. But where is the accountability for that disaster, or even a broad admission of the scope of the problem? Nowhere.

But alternatives are possible. For example, my wife and I, who like those computer scientists have taken defense money in the past, tried to add multi-perspective tools to decision makers’ toolboxes before 9/11 and for some time afterwards. The hope was so decision makers could at least try to take a broader view of conflicts by considering a diversity of opinions to hopefully come up with more innovative and hopefully peaceful solutions. Then we took that research and made it free for everyone by creating the FOSS NarraFirma WordPress plugin (a long hard slog over a long time, and it is not perfect, but at least now it is out there).

I feel there are many more non-secret tax-funded intelligence community ideas that could, and should, be made available to everyone as FOSS WordPress plugins, specifically ideas about structured arguments like SRI’s SEAS, other multi-perspective arguing-together approaches like SRI’s Angler, and a variety of other decision support and sensemaking tools (including FOSS ones like Compendium/IBIS that could be used more widely if adapted as WordPress plugins). The world needs such tools to promote democratic discussion and better human decisions a lot more than, say, it needs a billion dollars spent on super AI to displace more human workers (as with the OpenAI announcement the other day). The issue is not lack of funding, it is ideology — like Mark Surman said, US$55 trillion will flow into charitable foundations over the next 25 years. So, when CS professors think about defense-related stuff to work on with their 75% defense-related funding, that approach is perhaps the path of least resistance for them that will lead to a better world while still letting them keep their jobs. And NarraFirma shows it is possible.

And WordPress is not the only community that could move in that direction. Here is a related manifesto by me to Mozilla to invest in peer-to-peer technologies like an improved Thunderbird to support small groups of humans that want to make a difference, rather than proceed with what seems to be the current plan to abandon Thunderbird as with recent discussions to spinoff Thunderbird entirely (with Mozilla having already mostly defunded Thunderbird and email in general, despite email being a huge amount of internet traffic). I mention how if Mozilla had invested in such peer-to-peer ideas years ago, maybe Automattic would not have felt it had to move to a proprietary, centralized, and easily monitorable system like Slack. 🙁 I suggest such a Thunderbird-inspired platform could also form the base for such public intelligence and sensemaking tools. WordPress could do that as well; this is just the Mozilla-centric version of that idea; ideally many groups (Drupal and Joomla too, plus various FOSS webmail systems like Squirrel Mail, Roundcube, and mailpile) would all do that, even sharing code with each other under compatible free and open source licenses. See:

When even the “good guys” get caught up in conflict of interests supporting huge proprietary organizations (either Mozilla neglecting Thunderbird because focusing on Firefox to support centralized social media pays better as with Google or Yahoo funding, or Automattic with Slack because it was convenient and presumably easier than improving WordPress to support the same, same as with this very blog page pulling in code from Google and Facebook that aids tracking of readers across the web), it can be hard to have hope sometimes. BTW, I still don’t understand why Automattic does not improve WordPress’ support for instant messaging; just use that an Automattician created as a “ping server” to tell WordPress-hosted webapp users when to immediately poll WordPress to get new data and go from there.

Studs Terkel was wrong when he said “Hope Dies Last” — even without hope, we can have habits, rituals, and responsibilities, whether we really have hope or not. And sometimes that may be enough. 🙂 So, we still have to keep moving on, even with folly around us and even with our own follies. And even when there seems to be no hope. 🙂 As Jane Austin had a character say in Pride and Prejudice, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” So let me tell you about my latest folly. 🙂 I know Mozilla will almost certainly ignore what I wrote, and they already rejected a job application as a “Growth Engineer” I put in to improve Thunderbird as in the manifesto — the very next day, some HR speed record! 🙂 Nonetheless, at the bottom of the manifesto, I just added a link to a GitHub project with a week-long sprint I just started working on to create a proof of concept of Thunderbird as a webmail client in Mithril hosted by a local Node.js server that hopefully will by the end of the sprint be able to (very crudely) handle email, IRC, RSS, wikis, and more. I’m not saying anyone but maybe me would be foolhardly enough to start using it seriously after that week, but the point it to show Mozilla what is possible. That technology could also perhaps be a WordPress plugin someday, same as NarraFirma supports both Node.js and WordPress, since most of the work will be in the front-end JavaScript/TypeScript. Slack has raised US$340 million so far (which could fund about 3000 full-time developer-years) and I’ll be lucky to put a week full-time into an alternative (if I can resist writing more posts like this one) before my wife finds out and insists I stop for very reasonable financial reasons and I sheepishly go back to looking for paying work, asking for forgiveness instead of permission, and spinning it as adding to my portfolio. 🙂 So, given such a broad variation in quality and commitment, I can see why someone might choose one platform over the other regardless of issues of “freedom”, even if “Twirlip” turns out to be other than vaporware. 🙂 Guess I’m too stupid to know when to quit. 🙂 So, it’s not hope that dies last; it’s stupidity. 🙂 Well, either that or poorly done attempts at comedy. 🙂

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