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Andrew (he/him)
Andrew (he/him)

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Code is Political

"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.

Top comments (26)

web3coach profile image
Lukas Lukac

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 ->

bradtaniguchi profile image

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)

ben profile image
Ben Halpern

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.

byrro profile image
Renato Byrro • Edited

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.

awwsmm profile image
Andrew (he/him)

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.

byrro profile image
Renato Byrro

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".

_hs_ profile image

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

tonymet profile image
Tony Metzidis

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

awwsmm profile image
Andrew (he/him)

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.

tonymet profile image
Tony Metzidis

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

Thread Thread
awwsmm profile image
Andrew (he/him)

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

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