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Code is Political

awwsmm profile image Andrew (he/him) ・3 min read

"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."
-- Desmond Tutu


Programming is not -- and has never been -- apolitical or amoral.

From 2015 to 2018, the world's largest tech companies spent a collective $582 million lobbying the United States Congress. Tech is, and has always been, shaped by the moral and ideological goals of particular people and groups.


Tech is shaped by the government through regulation and standardisation, but the government is also shaped by the tech industry. Algorithmic gerrymandering has been a problem in the United States for decades now and researchers are looking to correct the problem with -- what else -- different algorithms. This close-knit relationship between government and computing has existed as long as there have been computers. For instance...

Konrad Zuse, the creator of the world's first programmable computer and first high-level programming language, Plankalkül, was financed by the Nazi German government. He never disavowed their support or expressed regret for furthering the Nazi war effort.

Alan Turing, the father of theoretical computer science and namesake of the Turing machine and Turing test, cracked Nazi codes, shortening WWII and saving an estimated 14-21 million lives. Turing was then chemically castrated by the British government for the crime of being homosexual and later committed suicide.

ENIAC, the world's first general-purpose digital computer, was used by the United States government to "produce ballistics tables and refine hydrogen bomb designs".

Child labor is still commonly used to mine materials used in the manufacture of electronics. Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla have all been accused of using child labor to mine raw materials.

Social media giants Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were famously used to organise protests during the Arab Spring of 2010-2012, leading to the toppling of several regimes in the region.

Facebook has been used to facilitate genocide in Myanmar. Facebook has also been criticised for allowing pro-rape groups, providing a platform to promote anti-semitic terrorism, and picking and choosing which political groups and parties to allow on their website.

Employee mistreatment has led to so many suicides at Chinese electronics factories -- where products like the iPhone are made -- that they have installed suicide nets to discourage workers from trying to jump off the roofs of buildings.

A recent study seems to confirm what many have begun to suspect -- that YouTube's "algorithmic amplification" can lead to radicalisation, pushing controversial content and leading viewers down a rabbit hole of outspoken conservative -> alt-lite -> alt-right videos and channels.

Amazon scrapped a resumé-screening tool for sexist biases, and has had issues with automatic removal of LGBT works for "pornography", in addition to their horrific history of labor abuses.

Tesla and Uber are confronting a real-life trolley problem in its programming of autonomous vehicles. Are the passengers' lives more valuable? Or pedestrians'? Should the government dictate the ethics of driverless cars? Or should a person be allowed to personalise their vehicle's "ethics settings"?


The code we write is biased, whether we intend for it to be or not. Refusing to acknowledge this fact does nothing to solve the problems created by it. We must actively work to counter our biases and use code for good, and not evil.

Posted on Jun 3 by:

awwsmm profile

Andrew (he/him)

@awwsmm

Got a Ph.D. looking for dark matter, but not finding any. Now I code full-time. Je parle un peu français. dogs > cats

Discussion

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More now than ever, as we automate more and more with black boxes based on modeled data. It's scary to think that so much of this is going to be done by people with their fingers in their ears refusing to acknowledge the potential ramifications.

 

Thanks for speaking up Andrew. Very good points. I would like to add to this that also choosing to build software that is controlled by a central authority where users have 0 rights it's also something we should keep in mind.

The false COVID news, purchasable votes, promoted racist videos and hate speech are all problems we should be focusing on as software developers these days.

I was writing passionately the last days about the topic, especially trying to explain how design your next app's software architecture without forcing 6 billion people to get news from the same corrupted algorithm.

We need to build an open web, right now the majority of the world is controlled by 3 companies taking orders from few rich politicians.

THREAD on how to do it -> twitter.com/Web3Coach/status/12682...

 

Thank you for bringing front the elephant in the room :)
That's what I had in mind when I replied to Ben Halpern's latest CS vs Software engeneering:
dev.to/brandelune/comment/pn4f

 

I understand and share your concerns, but just a few reflections:

This type of argument (reduce complex matters to 0 or 1 positions) has been used in the past several times to justify all sorts of atrocities against innocent people. One thousand years ago, you either believed Jesus or would face being set on fire in the public square. It was considered immoral not to side by Jesus' "representatives".

Just because agricultural-related businesses lobby in Congress, it doesn't make soybeans or corn become political characters. It's the same with tech. No, it's not a political thing. Businesses can be political, and they can use tech. Google & Apple ARE NOT tech. They USE tech.

Be careful with these thoughts. I understand this is highly emotional and change is required. But just be careful not to make things worse. I believe many of the ideas circulating now are going to make things a LOT worse for humanity.

 

Interesting choice of counterexample, since agriculture is one of the most politicised industries in the world:

For instance, the U.S. government has manipulated the price of corn so much that it's now essentially owned by the American taxpayer, with the nation's largest producers netting tens of billions of dollars in subsidy payments annually. This is a political issue. That money could be spent on public infrastructure, education, or healthcare, but it's tied up in this industry which regularly and repeatedly lobbies Congress.

 

To any possible example I give, your thought will suggest it's one of the most politicised things in the world. Because the purpose is to say everything is political. Hence the title of your article.

The argument tries to prove it by itself, which I don't consider a reasonable position, at least not if we're pursuing the truth, as opposed to pursue the imposition of beliefs.

As I said, this is the same avenue used by draconian episodes in the human history, such as the "Holy Inquisition".

The production and distribution of corn may be controlled by governmental organizations, but that doesn't make corn a political character. Tech companies may be political actors, but not code. They can use code for their shady political purposes, just as cars are used by bank robbers. But we don't go out saying that "cars are bank-robbing tools".

 

Of course people can misuse (sometimes abuse :D) software which ends up being called "hacking". Now if one might notice that they're being asked to track users and find such information irrelevant to the software function, they can stand up and refuse it. Same goes for developing low quality code just to make boss happy and accepting that he's selling it as state of the art. So by not doing anything this may lead to those scenarios you described.

So knowing you have a job which pays enough to support family may lead to turning the blind eye and letting things like racism, sexism, anti-this/that go through. There's a report button on most social media platforms. Why don't people use it? Why do we only blame companies? Who works at those companies?...

A lot of stuff in the world right now is messed up

 

Why only focus on cynical aspects? If code is political, surely there has been some positive outcomes?

 

Right. Code has the power to do tremendous good, but also tremendous harm. Just because it runs on unthinking circuitry doesn't mean it's free from political, moral, or ideological agendas -- good or bad. We must acknowledge that potential for abuse and avoid making those mistakes.

 

can i ask what you think are some of the positive examples?

No, but you're welcome to write your own article in response.

 

Odd article.

"Code is Political" which it isn't.
"Programming is not -- and has never been -- apolitical or amoral." which is true. Conflicting statements. Code is just a toolset for programming. Programs are written with an agenda, Dev.to for example, has an agenda.

If code is political, so is the alphabet. If you arrange the syntax in a certain order, you'll get political statements.

Programming is no different to pen and paper which has always had an agenda depending on the author. If you really didn't think it did, you're in the wrong industry. This is not a new thing, it's been going on for decades.

 
 

Interesting argument about the title. Let me know when you've read the article.

 

I have read the article and it touches on some interesting topics but I still struggle with how this relates to code is bias. I'm wondering what you're reading into it.

I'm reading more into it as being 'be careful which companies you use as their moral compass might be iffy'. This applies to both being a developer and being a consumer.

In the software examples (not all examples are software related), every example is 'Company/Government A is funding software creation and using it for dubious purposes'. So the issue is more the companies and how they are using the toolsets available. It's no different to using advertising as a toolset, or written literature.

The manufacturing issues like suicides and child labor are not new issues. They've been around since the 1790's when the industrial revolution kicked off. If anything, employees are far more protected now than they ever have been but obviously there's room for improvement.

The article doesn't touch grey areas, or less obvious I should say.
Take a bank for example. lots of people use online banking. Banks make investments with your money and not all of them are for good. Who funds the mines out of DRC?
When you buy a mobile phone (or any other device thats rechargable) where do you think the cobalt comes from?

Nor does the article mention where software is used for good.

I think you're reading that as a judgement on the code itself, like there's morally good and bad code. However, the very same code can be used for both bad and good purposes, like the banking you're mentioned. It's more in the use and the context than in the algorithms themselves.

I'm reading this as while code seems purely technical, don't think you'll avoid ethical dilemmas. You won't jest be solving algorithmic puzzles in the void. Your code can do tremendous amounts of good ( AI that diagnoses cancer better than the best human doctors, most productivity growth...), but it can do harm to. Chose wisely.

 

Those who shout their opinion should get the same amount of respect as those who don't. Liberalism should work for both sides.

 

"First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."

 

The poems meaning is more or less the same as the one posted at the top of the post.

It originated as sort of admission of cowardice from those in power in the face of Nazism taking control of Germany in the pre world war period.

Andrew is drawing parallels between prewar Germany's Elites who stood silently while great atrocities were being committed, and today's current racial situation where a vast majority do nothing because these issues don't affect them, but in doing so they are essentially enablers of the injustice.

So basically to be silent, one sides with the oppressor. Back then it was Nazis, today it's systemic racism.

en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they......

Phew. Are you really implying those who remain silent are racists or somewhat closer to Nazis? that's a dangerous overstatement right there and you should take care.

Notice how my argument began with "we all deserve respect, whether you speak up or not". Even your thinking of "silent = nazis", while delusional, deserves respect.

As written above, people who remain silent are enablers. They are not racist, they are not Nazis. They may actually have very strong feelings against that but by looking the other way for all the reasons they have, they are enablers.

And when you see how whistleblowers are treated, most of us very much prefer to stay silent, and even women who are battered prefer to remain silent. And nobody blames them for that. Because violence is extremely scary.

Andrew is not talking about that though. Andrew says that if you are in a position where the cost of acting is reasonable you have a duty to do so.

Are you really implying those who remain silent are racists or somewhat closer to Nazis? that's a dangerous overstatement right there and you should take care.

This seems like a logically fallacious statement. I think it falls under hasty generalization. (IE the statement has a flaw in reasoning)

 
Sloan, the sloth mascot Comment marked as low quality/non-constructive by the community View code of conduct

Yeah, put political correct bullshit in IT too. We have not enough of it. Just write the good code and that’s all. Your customer pay you for the result, not for morality

 
Sloan, the sloth mascot Comment marked as low quality/non-constructive by the community View code of conduct

poignant & indisputably relevant to todays clash with chaos 👍🏿.
I agree we as weilders of such virtual power (programmers, engineers, technomancers), what we choose to do with our power defines our character ultimately. Its like Aurors against Death Eaters - there are no neutral sides, just good & evil + willful ignorance.

I would just add to the list of bad-faith actors hustling division and fear for world domination: Black Lives Matter. I appreciate the show of compassion you and many misinformed others give to such causes as BLM, NAACP, & ACLU.

these are **SHAM* organizations and I pray you (instead of incredulity and irreverent-offense, do some research into these seemingly benign pro-social organizations.*

Corruption isn't limited to skin color.

 
Sloan, the sloth mascot Comment marked as low quality/non-constructive by the community View code of conduct

I like how mods censoring everything that doesn't match with their leftist agenda.

 
Sloan, the sloth mascot Comment marked as low quality/non-constructive by the community View code of conduct

Marking a comment as "low quality/non-constructive" just proves the point.

 
Sloan, the sloth mascot Comment marked as low quality/non-constructive by the community View code of conduct

Please stop ruining my hobby, thanks. ;(

 
Sloan, the sloth mascot Comment marked as low quality/non-constructive by the community View code of conduct

Da! Let's euthanize all programmers.
¡Sí! ENIAC programmers should hang by 28 gauge wires.
Jawohl! Even thinking of programming will lead you to homophobia, pedophilia, and Starbucks.
Oui, a, oui! Are you a closet programmer? We've some programs for you!

Really!?!? Since when does a computer do evil? It's just like saying toasters are intent on electrocuting people. Okay, you can say that the programmer can program do to evil. So, do you say that the Lotto and slots are evil?

And, where in the world did you pull up that "fact" that YouTube favors the right wing? Boy, I bet that was a bit (pit?) of cherry picking. Being a "programmer" you clearly do not understand "algorithms." YouTube uses a consummately simple algorithm: what's hot is hot and what's not is not.

Who is going to decide what is "evil code"? Are you proposing a new style of "digital brown shirts"?

BTW, I'm white, and I believe that all lives matter not: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."