If productivity improves, that is morally good.
May 17, 2015 6:29 AM   Subscribe

"But the problem runs much deeper, because Silicon Valley’s amorality problem arises from the implicit and explicit narrative of progress companies use for marketing and that people use to find meaning in their work. By accepting this narrative of progress uncritically, imagining that technological change equals historic human betterment, many in Silicon Valley excuse themselves from moral reflection. Put simply, the progress narrative short-circuits moral reflection on the consequences of new technologies."
posted by ignignokt (43 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
This reminds me a whole lot about how companies built on the "sharing" economy are really less about doing the sharing and more about exploiting those who can be strong-armed into a situation that can be referred to as "sharing" because they lack a leg to stand on.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:36 AM on May 17, 2015 [59 favorites]


This reminds me a whole lot about how companies built on the "sharing" economy are really less about doing the sharing and more about exploiting those who can be strong-armed into a situation that can be referred to as "sharing" because they lack a leg to stand on.

QFT. A million times this.
posted by nevercalm at 6:55 AM on May 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


There's stuff like participating in the arms industry or collaborating with the NSA and who-knows-how-many other governments and slave labor in developing economies, and the pivotal moral affronts this guy is concerned with involve bogus restaurant reservations and Zynga and Uber?

Even in the category he's talking about I don't remember, for example, ever hearing about Silicon Valley refusing to automate or otherwise enable telemarketing.

If Silicon Valley culture didn't preclude involvement in, say, developing military drones and other automated weapons systems and unleashing them on the world, it sure as hell wasn't going to shy away from making video games addictive.
posted by XMLicious at 7:10 AM on May 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


Searched for John Gray reference was not disappointed.
posted by KaizenSoze at 7:16 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's stuff like participating in the arms industry or collaborating with the NSA and who-knows-how-many other governments and slave labor in developing economies, and the pivotal moral affronts this guy is concerned with involve bogus restaurant reservations and Zynga and Uber?

Yes, because that's his academic focus.
posted by blendor at 7:18 AM on May 17, 2015 [10 favorites]


Uber management got called out, was not disappointed.
posted by iffthen at 7:20 AM on May 17, 2015


The defining intellectual fetish of the liberal is the desperate attempt to shoe-horn everything into a question of morality, as if the problems of capitalism aren't structural but just require an act of moral willpower to resolve:
For much of its history as the heart of information technology, people in Silicon Valley had robust conversations about morality and ethics. In the 70s and early 80s, debates about software (free vs. commercial) and competing visions of technological utopias (e.g., libertarian vs. socialist) were relatively commonplace and infused engineering choices with a distinctly moral dimension.
As if the free in "free software" was about liberty rather than, without charge i.e. a (somewhat quixotic) attempt to change the terms of capitalism w.r.t. software. He even sees politics itself as ultimately a moral conflict. Which is all well and good; a better marxist than me could spend pages dissecting this sort of muddy thinking. But, then about where the essayist here starts to talk about "moral intuitions" it's clear that he hasn't even spent any time actually thinking about "morality" i.e.
Morality is inherently subjective and a-rational.
Uhh... I guess so much for two millennia of European moral philosophy. I'm guessing his Sociology grad. program doesn't really make him read much on the subject... which makes sense given Sociology's positivist heritage. But, maybe someone out-of-department on his dissertation committee will talk to him about his ignorance on the subject. however, knowing how academia works, I doubt it.

This is what turning PhD programs into content mills looks like.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:35 AM on May 17, 2015 [25 favorites]


I know that I'm repeating myself but I think it's really embarrassing that someone about to get his PhD could write this:
Words like innovation, impact and disruption invite an abstract style of thinking and talking that leaves little room for moral reflection.[11] Talking about technology in terms of progress invites a technocratic and uncritical approach to thinking about the human good. It quickly moves from real benefits for real people to abstract systems upon systems that may someday benefit people. By encouraging this hyper-analytical thinking, the idea of progress desensitizes us to the use of moral judgment. It allows our moral intuitions to become dull.[12]
It's like what you'd expect from a freshman at some Christian diploma mill. But what's worse is that it's footnoted!
12. The language of benevolence and emphasis on real people is borrowed from chapter nine in: Taylor, Charles. 1991. The Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard University Press.
I guess if you really are a utilitarian, moral philosophy is a total waste of time but come on....
posted by ennui.bz at 7:55 AM on May 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is a problem with pretty much all capitalist industry, no? In this respect the so called new and disruptive industries are business as usual.

I mean, did Watt and Co. ever entertain the notion that scaling up hydrocarbon use to gli al levels could be anything but good? Did Edison and Co. consider the implications of mass media and ubiquitous energy infrastructure?
posted by clvrmnky at 7:58 AM on May 17, 2015


23andMe should have been a long-term research project, not a Silicon Valley startup. Given its business model, investors should not have funded it, nor should the media have celebrated it.

This is presented as axiomatic but I wonder if it is. I kind of think it is a pity that somebody couldn't put together an ethical 23andMe_and_nobody_else_without_bogus_health_claims. If I knew nobody else would get the data and it was only a hundred bucks, I would be certainly consider buying it and I bet a bunch of other people would.
posted by bukvich at 8:05 AM on May 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


This guy is boring. Let's try something interesting:

I'm working for a large telecommunications manufacturer. They want to sell in the U.S. which means that their core boxes are legally required to be able to eavesdrop on thousands of people simultaneously. I get assigned to design the eavesdropping system.

What moral courses of action are open to me?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:10 AM on May 17, 2015 [6 favorites]


This is a problem with pretty much all capitalist industry, no? In this respect the so called new and disruptive industries are business as usual.

Silicon Valley is wrapping itself in the language of morality, though, which is why I think it's a valid target for this sort of criticism. Was that the case for businesses in the past? (It very well may have been -- I'm asking, not rhetorical-izing.)
posted by jaguar at 8:13 AM on May 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


And the flipside of this seems to be well represented by the Amish approach to technology evaluation (which I find refreshing).
posted by dylanjames at 8:18 AM on May 17, 2015 [12 favorites]


dylanjames the author is from the Valley. I suppose he can grok something like:

INHABIT: A Permaculture Perspective - KICKSTARTER TRAILER
posted by bukvich at 8:24 AM on May 17, 2015


Yes, because that's his academic focus.

That blurb appears at the bottom of the article. It seemed to me like a reason to hold his assertion of a "shift toward amorality" to a higher standard, not a lower one.
posted by XMLicious at 8:24 AM on May 17, 2015


I guess if you really are a utilitarian, moral philosophy is a total waste of time

Well, not really, since utilitarianism is a position within moral philosophy. Moral philosophy is probably how the utilitarian (or "consequentialist") pays her mortgage, in fact.
posted by thelonius at 8:35 AM on May 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


dylanjames, that Amish article is riveting, is it an FPP yet?
posted by infini at 8:41 AM on May 17, 2015


Well, he started with Ben Franklin and his scientific pragmatism, who by misplacimg the moral compass of the time was able to progress at an amazing rate toward pragmatic, pure science. The lost moral compass was the act of cutting out the church as the expensive middle man who would happily pronounce on issues of morality for a hefty fee. The church would also abort their science lessons for reasons of their own perceived continuity, and forbid lines of inquiry, citing iniquity. Once scientists no longer had to ask if their thoughts were acceptable they spoke freely among themselves, then the spirit in open exchange exponentially multiplied growth in areas of intellectual endeavor.

The scientific method is problematic in that it is entirely reflective of the minds that made it, largely one gender. One sided thinking on behalf of a several sided equation is not necessarily a reflection of the broader reality of human, if not all earthly existence. Once the genie of "pure thought, pure science" was out of the bottle, then there is no going back. It is then when the "P.T. Barnum Effect," sets up, and the cunning and clever, start herding the science nerds, that is how we now face oblteration at our own hands facilitated by fulminating weaponry and the misplaced morality of more is better, in conflict with reality (sustainability) and the religious morality on all sides of the human equation, that always says what you do in "my name, his name," is OK, in fact more than OK, it is blessed.

Faith is a weak word, it means belief, beliefs are abstracts that may or may not be supported by hard data. Then we come to tech. As we approach creating AI, to equal say a Benjamin Franklin, then we have to better understand our own mechanics, as we seek to make something of such great power in our own image.

Morality is even a worse word than faith, or belief. Because on the sandy foundation of faith and belief, morality is then planted. Morality the concept, the word has no place in such broad consensus reality as exists across the Earth. Morally we will kill the killers, behead the faithless, imprison women under modest clothing and hold in contempt those who practice differently. Morally we will hone our weapons both physical and economic, that there will be no visible blood on any hand, and from whatever great distance we can create, no cries will be heard. Then the lunch meeting shall be good.

More rationality is better and truly learning, the long game, how the Earth works, and how we can realize and accept we all inhabit the only platform available, upon which the human model is failing. The rationality of pragmatically, scientifically, and responsibly accepting the challenge of superseding this on a basic level is our common task.

This has nothing to do with morality, and every thing to do with applied attention, fierce science, at this point.
posted by Oyéah at 8:48 AM on May 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


ennui.bz "As if the free in "free software" was about liberty rather than, without charge i.e. a (somewhat quixotic) attempt to change the terms of capitalism w.r.t. software."

Actually, free software advocates talk about the difference between "free as in beer" and "free as in speech" a lot and they're firmly on the "free as in speech" side. Software that costs nothing but isn't open to be improved on or learned from is, to many free software advocates anathema. To claim that the free software movement is about software with no charge is entirely incorrect. The founder, and still the moral core, of the free software movement is Richard Stallman and he's always been about software being free as in speech.

He'd been annoyed increasingly by software that forbade him from seeing the source code, and the final straw as a set of closed drivers for a printer that wouldn't let him do what he knew for a fact that printer was capable of doing.

That's what the whole GPL is about: requiring that software made with it be open, that software derived from GPL licensed code be open. That you can't just grab it, use it in your project, and then keep it all secret and hidden away so that no one else can improve on it or learn from it. That's why the detractors of the GPL call it a virus.

So no, it isn't at all just about being without charge.
posted by sotonohito at 8:49 AM on May 17, 2015 [25 favorites]


I guess if you really are a utilitarian, moral philosophy is a total waste of time

Well, not really, since utilitarianism is a position within moral philosophy. Moral philosophy is probably how the utilitarian (or "consequentialist") pays her mortgage, in fact.


That's my point. You don't have to read or understand anyone else's moral philosophy, you just apply your algorithm to solve all the problems. PROFIT! The problem is that when you have two or three or more generations of students, the students no longer know what the original debates were about (since you presumably solved the fundamental questions). But this means that they no longer can actually read the papers you wrote, because your papers were written in implied debate with views they can't begin to guess.

So it's not just that these sorts of "pragmatists" no longer understand moral philosophy that isn't utilitarian pragmatism, but that they can no longer understand their own professed philosophy.

I think it's an inherent problem with people who think that the fundamental problems of the humanities are "solvable": see economics, and marxists are the godfathers of this particular intellectual pathology...
posted by ennui.bz at 8:52 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's stuff like participating in the arms industry or collaborating with the NSA and who-knows-how-many other governments and slave labor in developing economies, and the pivotal moral affronts this guy is concerned with involve bogus restaurant reservations and Zynga and Uber?

It's ok because someone else is doing worse is not a moral argument.
posted by walrus at 8:53 AM on May 17, 2015 [7 favorites]


"What moral course of action is open to you?"

Make a very hackable system, yet subtle to detect, take the money and go forward. When they, some younger, smarter whippersnapper detects it then you say, "Awww you are so brilliant, if I hadn't installed that end around then everyone would know about your (X,Y orZ fetish,) but as it stands, only I do. Do you really think this needs modification?
posted by Oyéah at 8:55 AM on May 17, 2015


Actually, free software advocates talk about the difference between "free as in beer" and "free as in speech" a lot and they're firmly on the "free as in speech" side. Software that costs nothing but isn't open to be improved on or learned from is, to many free software advocates anathema. To claim that the free software movement is about software with no charge is entirely incorrect. The founder, and still the moral core, of the free software movement is Richard Stallman and he's always been about software being free as in speech.

yeah, i knew someone was going to bring this up. Either way you get the source free of charge. I think the whole "beer vs. speech" debate sort of illustrates the corrosive effect of liberalism that I was alluding to. Stallman was trying to construct an alternative to capitalism, as it's usually construed, for software in a pretty concrete way. I don't think that overwrought moral-poltiico debate has advanced that cause much, but part of the problem is that the supposed debate about the nature of "free" really just masks a split between people like Raymond who don't have a problem with capitalism and the old beardo's like Stallman who do...

My point was that Stallmann is/was pretty openly trying to monkey around with capitalism, not advancing some moral cause...
posted by ennui.bz at 9:02 AM on May 17, 2015


It's ok because someone else is doing worse is not a moral argument.

I'm seeing this a lot more frequently nowadays, especially noticeable on metafilter where it wasn't the default justification for murica.
posted by infini at 9:05 AM on May 17, 2015


It's ok because someone else is doing worse is not a moral argument.

Not "somebody else", those are things which Silicon Valley has been involved with throughout its existence, the same Silicon Valley which according to the article has during the last decade shifted towards amorality.
posted by XMLicious at 9:07 AM on May 17, 2015


It's not quite as illuminating as the Californian Ideology.
posted by meehawl at 9:09 AM on May 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Our effective pragmatism is limited by our failure to incorporate the long game. I heard someonce compare the US to China. Having an in depth conversation the guy said in the US, the long game is six months, while in China, it is three generations. As the US creates, the business model is immediate, and long range, is about money, not evolution of the industry, or impact. With the deliberate obfuscation of fact, regarding potential negative outcomes, then there can be no long game. The focus on the immediate generates some brilliant short term effects, but fails, even in a business model to plot potential for market persistence, survival. It creates a kind of dog eat dog model, basically hostile economic competition, though stimulating as white collar warring, but still fraught with victims.

Then again you look at how a coral reef works, are you going to judge the snatch and grab eaters, extol those who use camouflage, vilify those who produce hundreds of young, while loving the clams? You can go snorkeling and enjoy the colors, maybe bag some dinner or a pearl, or have a breakdown over the morality of it.
posted by Oyéah at 9:16 AM on May 17, 2015


It's not quite as illuminating as the Californian Ideology.

Or as interesting to read as Dave Eggers' The Circle.
posted by blendor at 9:20 AM on May 17, 2015


I'm working for a large telecommunications manufacturer. They want to sell in the U.S. which means that their core boxes are legally required to be able to eavesdrop on thousands of people simultaneously. I get assigned to design the eavesdropping system.

What moral courses of action are open to me?


Assume some reasonable things: you're not a US national, but neither are you a sworn enemy of the Great Satan. You're brilliant and capable of designing an effectively unhackable (I know, indulge me) system. You also view large-scale eavesdropping, of the sort you're now obliged to contribute toward, as morally wrong.

1. Complain to higher-ups, and if that fails, resign. This resolves the tension between private morality and your obligations to your employer. You can't design a less-than-capable system, since that's not really carrying out your obligations.
2. Follow the letter of your obligations and make the system too good. Instead of leaving difficult-to-exploit holes, make the system function so well it works against the original goals of the surveillance (i.e. configure it so it slurps up too much, rather than too little, and is difficult to configure to be "just right".)

Any other assumptions and there's not a significant moral problem. I don't view shirking on your duties to your employer to be very moral at all. Here's my interesting question: how could one make the system "hackable" without failing to fulfil your obligations as an employee?
posted by iffthen at 9:32 AM on May 17, 2015


As if the free in "free software" was about liberty rather than, without charge i.e. a (somewhat quixotic) attempt to change the terms of capitalism w.r.t. software.

Are you familiar with the origins of the Free Software movement, vs. the Open Source software movement? The latter was certainly a play to reframe participation in the creation of valuable goods, while the former was explicitly about the freedom to use obtained-goods in the form of software as one desires.

I don't want to be lecturey, and if you were brushing over the distinctions for the purpose of a shorter post, I apologize for finger-wagging. But collapsing the two (historically related) movements and suggesting their motivations are the same is definitely a mistake.

Edit: Meh, caught the rest of the discussion on preview. Disagree pretty strongly with your read, but I think you're confusing the splashover effects of capitalism on licensing and intellectual property with capitalism per se. Not sure if that's accidental or deliberate.
posted by verb at 9:34 AM on May 17, 2015 [8 favorites]


Having an in depth conversation the guy said in the US, the long game is six months, while in China, it is three generations.

Uh...have you been to Beijing lately? Is their 3 generation long game about bringing a polluted wasteland into being as quickly as humanly possible?
posted by prodigalsun at 10:11 AM on May 17, 2015 [5 favorites]


Rationally designed and managed firms would spread because they would outcompete firms that were run on more traditional bases – such as a mixture of family obligation and devotion to craft.

Scott Alexander's "Meditations on Moloch" generalizes this pattern to all such "multipolar traps," and personifies it as the god Moloch, who "always and everywhere offers the same deal: throw what you love most into the flames, and I will grant you power." And he expects technological progress to make this kind of moral regress even easier:
As technological advance increases, the rare confluence [of circumstances where we are unusually safe from multipolar traps] will come to an end. New opportunities to throw values under the bus for increased competitiveness will arise. New ways of copying agents to increase the population will soak up our excess resources and resurrect Malthus’ unquiet spirit. Capitalism and democracy, previously our protectors, will figure out ways to route around their inconvenient dependence on human values. And our coordination power will not be nearly up to the task, assuming somthing much more powerful than all of us combined doesn’t show up and crush our combined efforts with a wave of its paw.
posted by Rangi at 10:12 AM on May 17, 2015 [7 favorites]


how could one make the system "hackable" without failing to fulfil your obligations as an employee?

From personal experience and long time observation of software engineering: do my level best to make it secure. It won't matter.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:56 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


[Friendly reminder, please don't use the edit function to add content, just make a second comment. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:57 AM on May 17, 2015


China's long game, sequestering the water off the Himalayas to suit their needs. Creating an alliance with Pakistan, and a route to the Indian Ocean. Encircling the world's largest democracy, India, ally of the West. All while pouring more cement than has ever been poured, and in a scant few years. The long game, I think peace will come to Afghanistan via this pincer tactic, in trade for Lithium.

The spread of biomass knows no morality, only resources available/ not available. When resources , all resources are brokered along the lines of blind gain, then those with the consolidated resources and the vision to manage them will be able to engage in the long game, which is survival.
posted by Oyéah at 11:26 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


In the words of the co-founder of the OSI talking about Stallman:
For him, what he calls Free Software is very much a moral crusade. It almost has the character of a religion. He’s passionately involved in all kinds of arguments about the nature and appropriate scope of intellectual property. I care much less about that. To me, Open Source is not particularly a moral or a legal issue. It’s an engineering issue. I advocate Open Source, because very pragmatically, I think it leads to better engineering results and better economic results.
posted by Poldo at 3:36 PM on May 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


The defining intellectual fetish of the liberal is the desperate attempt to shoe-horn everything into a question of morality

You're thinking of David Brooks...I don't think he's a liberal.
posted by uosuaq at 4:51 PM on May 17, 2015


Yeah for RMS it's definitely a moral issue but a fairly narrow one.
posted by atoxyl at 4:53 PM on May 17, 2015


This resolves the tension between private morality and your obligations to your employer. You can't design a less-than-capable system, since that's not really carrying out your obligations. I don't view shirking on your duties to your employer to be very moral at all. Here's my interesting question: how could one make the system "hackable" without failing to fulfil your obligations as an employee?

Sweet slave theology, bro.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 5:28 PM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was a starry-eyed Free Software idealist in San Francisco in the dot-com 1990s. I was a grubby little Debianista eschewing all manner of no-cost software that was not truly equally Free (as in speech) to everyone, and I really still am.

We tried to explain ourselves to Capital, back then. We argued internally about whether we should even trust these "Open Source" advocates to step in front of us and argue their messages of productivity and software quality to people who were only interested in taking advantage of an inexpensive boon.

I am reminded of an article that came out around that time, where a confused journalist wrote that mathematicians at a conference chided computer scientists for not advancing the state of the art sufficiently or being properly scientific. In fact, the moment really came when a group of computer scientists chided software developers. We tried to shout our own identity to the press, but they will always take the word of the folks with the PR budget. They'll believe some software shop is full of "computer scientists", and they'll print that ESR represents us.

That is definitely one place I wish we had done better.

But we are still focused on freedom, not economy.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:54 AM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


You're thinking of David Brooks...I don't think he's a liberal.

[leans in and races together while buying the ethical kind of beef that's ethical to buy]
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:41 AM on May 18, 2015


The defining intellectual fetish of the liberal is the desperate attempt to shoe-horn everything into a question of morality

But every question that involves decisions that can have good or bad consequences is and has to be a moral question, because that's what ethics is: the study of how to make good decisions (it's the "good vs. bad" concept that causes all the confusion, but no one seriously wants to ditch those basic conceptual categories when they're really put to it; even amoralists usually argue their point of view is "better," and so make the same value judgments implicitly). No one, liberal or conservative, is shoehorning anything into anything when they bring up the moral dimensions of a problem. Ethics is about asking the question "How does one make a good choice?" and by definition, that's a really broad question that already implicates pretty much every choice anyone can make that doesn't come down to something relatively inconsequential, like personal taste.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:03 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was a grubby little Debianista ... I really still am ... we are still focused on freedom, not economy.

And this is important.

I stopped using Ubuntu and started using Debian because of Mark Shuttleworth's response to criticism of the repositioning of window controls for Ubuntu Lucid Lynx: essentially a flat denial that critics had anything worthwhile to say, and an expression of complete support for his design team.

Now, as the CEO of a corporation offering a product in a competitive marketplace, assembling a design team you have confidence in and then giving them public support is perfectly reasonable. But from my point of view as a user of that corporation's product, having it gratuitously mess with my muscle memory for the sake of some designer's "vision" was a complete pain in the arse.

I learned a lot from using Ubuntu, and I think the amount of work that the Canonical team put into improving the integration between the disparate parts that a free-software-based desktop operating system has available was and remains very valuable. But the main benefit, for me, of choosing Ubuntu over a purely proprietary system was this: when the system evolved in a way that didn't suit me, I had a huge range of similar and compatible replacement systems to choose from, built using selections from the same underlying collection of freely shared parts - which is absolutely not the experience of all those people made miserable by Windows 8.

Some time after switching to Debian I had another nasty shock when GNOME became completely useless to me after a careless aptitude full-upgrade. This time I responded not by switching distributions, just desktop environments. Xfce is at least as well supported in Debian as GNOME; Debian is structurally a democracy and a community of volunteers, so that support will most likely continue until reasons for moving to something that works substantially differently become compelling enough to drive something approaching consensus.

I love the lack of lock-in that these systems offer me, and I am endlessly amused by the fact that, in the realm of software, the folks bearing the torch to keep the free market ideals of competition and choice alive are not the shining corporate exemplars of Free Enterprise whose boosters constantly trumpet these values through every available megaphone, but the smelly hippie free-software commie white ants who quietly occupy their wainscoting.
posted by flabdablet at 9:25 PM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


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