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The DEV Team

Where do you think ethics in tech is falling short?

graciegregory profile image Gracie Gregory (she/her) ใƒป1 min read

The format of DEV's first official podcast, DevDiscuss, begins with an interview and ends with commentary from the community.

For this week's episode, we want to know...

Where do you think ethics in tech is falling short?

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Gracie Gregory (she/her)

@graciegregory

Content Manager @ DEV. "You know what this sentence needs? An Em dash!" - Me to me

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The team behind this very platform. ๐Ÿ˜„

Discussion

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Basic respect for user privacy is definitely lacking. Just because we can track our users, it doesn't mean we should. Personal data has become an incredibly toxic subject in recent years thanks to the likes of Facebook and Google.

Nowadays, "free" services (such as social media) have become a mandatory aspect of our predominantly digitally driven daily lives. Although we have always had the freedom to disagree with a platform's use of our data (as written in the appropriate terms of service), it is no longer feasible to disconnect oneself from the digital world.

If I were to be stubborn and reject all platforms that sell my data in exchange for "free services", then I wouldn't be able to keep up with the modern ways of communication. I'd literally be stuck in the past.

Case in point, surrendering our privacy is no longer a choice; it's a necessity. And that's where I think we have failed in tech.

Despite all the unreadable legal jargon that gives us the freedom to reject the terms of service, the modern lifestyle urges us to choose otherwise.

User privacy is an illusion. We have no choice anymore, and that's the disturbingly harsh, Orwellian reality of the "open" Web.

 

I totally agree with this ๐Ÿ’ฏ
Hell most of friends won't care joining privacy based alternatives because they are not that "good" (I mean if you are not going to use it, its not going to get better more users means more chances a company/community is going to make it better)

 

If I were to be stubborn and reject all platforms that sell my data in exchange for "free services", then I wouldn't be able to keep up with the modern ways of communication. I'd literally be stuck in the past.

Can you elaborate on this?

I can only think of WhatsApp, that doesn't have a privacy-friendly alternative, because it is a closed platform. Probably LinkedIn, but you can get some leads there and use email for the next steps.

 

Sure! What I meant by that was expounding on my point that "surrendering user privacy" has become a necessity at this point.

As you said, we have the freedom to choose other alternatives. For example, one can opt to use DuckDuckGo over Google for the sake of privacy, but that doesn't mean we always have that choice in other areas of tech. Moreover, it doesn't exactly mean the alternatives are the most practical and the most convenient solutions.

If one wanted to use a more privacy-centric OS, then they would have to jump through the hoops of Linux. Not everyone has the ability to tinker around, so most of us just settle with Windows, Mac, Android, or iOS.

We may opt to use DuckDuckGo in this case, but that doesn't mean we don't make trade-offs in other areas.

And that is the heart of the issue: it is simply easier to surrender user privacy. We have failed in developing the tech industry in such a way that makes privacy the easiest choice. Frankly put, user privacy is not the default (for various business-related reasons).

In turn, after years of domination (or dare I say "monopolization"), the "Facebooks" and "Googles" of the world have normalized the culture of trading privacy for their "free" services.

That is what I found unethical about it. We live in a world where this is an acceptable trade-off, perhaps even mandatory in most cases, especially with non-tech-savvy individuals.

I agree, but would argue you are congregating two distinct phenomena.

  1. Many services (WhatsApp, YouTube, Uber, Facebook...) are subject to two-sided markets or other network benefits. By being the largest they are a de-facto monopoly. This is an issue of lacking legislators who don't enforce competitive free markets through e.g. open communication standards.
  2. People know nothing about technology, in particular as it relates to potentials for data abuse in this example, yet still use it and have opinions about it. I've seen this in software engineers holding an MSc as well.

Google vs DuckDuckGo is caused entirely by the second issue, and could be considered a result of user choice. WhatsApp vs Signal is also caused by the first, and really isn't a choice.

There are further cases where users really don't have a (proper) choice, such as with mobile OS, or website who chose to use third party utilities who track as a side-effect, essentially because their devs are bad.

Ah, I see your point. However, either way we look at it, this issue on privacy is definitely an area in tech in which we have failed in terms of ethics.

It's not that we, as developers, are inherently "evil". Through the years, we simply have not addressed the privacy issues arising from the ubiquity of tech. Until only recently (thanks to legislation such as the EU's GDPR), we have fostered a culture in which it is totally acceptable to intrude on user privacy "by default". For some, as you differentiated, it is due to the lack of a "proper choice".

Thank you for adding the distinction. It initially did not occur to me that I have mixed the two phenomena. Perhaps I have been too caught up with my main thesis that over the years, the tech industry has normalized a culture of intrusion.

 

I came here to write this, thanks๐Ÿ˜Š

 

I think it is falling short on fact-checking misinformation and disinformation. Facebook has recently taken a stance to not show an alert for content that could be misleading. It may not change everyone's opinion, but it would be a step in the right direction to have public figures be fact-checked. The anti-vaccination movement may not be a thing if fact-checking had been in place when that gained traction.

 

Companies like Apple who are strongly fighting the idea of an open web and take 30% of their apps. This tech way of value based pricing is extremely capitalistic and disrespectful to the people and developers.
Its sad to see how cultish people follow tech trends like Apple because the majority of people know little to nothing about the field to have a solid opinion.

 

Ethics is a moral value. "Tech" is a tool. It's like asking where does "ethics" in hammer use is falling short (and the NRA already has the answer: "guns don't kill people, people kill people"). I understand it makes the question longer but I'd rephrase it as "where are ethics in IT /"Tech" based human interactions falling short", or something. And here, yes, it's everywhere, because whatever does "Tech", it is primarily about value extraction and there are very little enforceable ways to make value extraction ethical in the current economical paradigm. System wise ethics can only come as a afterthought.

So my answer would be that. It falls short because it is an afterthought. A clumsy patch that can be reverted at anytime when considered not convenient. It is not the way the system is designed.

 

For me, we have to start with the proposition that tech is not values-neutral.

I think a lot of the industry sees the things it creates as one thing, while values and ethics are an entirely different thing.

Technology is not new and it didn't start with the ENIAC.

Controlling fire was a technological advancement. Writing. Agriculture. Iron. Gunpowder. The Printing Press.

All those and a lot more were also technologies that changed the course of global human society.

As such, modern technology is not the first moment where our tooling has ramifications for the way we live, the way we interact with others, the future of our civilizations, and the future of our planet as a whole. What is different this time is the technology of today has the potential to be a lot more destructive on a worldwide scale than just about anything before it.

What is helpful for me in thinking about this question is once I place today's technology in the timeline of human technological advancements, as part of the continually evolving landscape of tooling we keep on creating, than I can also place it in the continually evolving discourse on ethics.

If modern technology is not an aberration, but part of continued human discovery -- albeit with more potency and global reach than ever before -- then it is also subject to the same rigors of ethical exploration that has defined us as a species across every culture.

I think the challenge is to take that concept and reify it during our day-to-day as developers in the industry. It is one thing to hold it as an abstract endeavor, it is quite another to think through the ethical implications of whatever tool we're building, refactoring, iterating on, etc.

 
 

Machine learning is meant to emulate human perception, but it only emulates the dataset or implementer's perception. It's a difficult issue to address because fighting the bias means fighting the effectiveness of the trained data. You are also often at the mercy of available data collection methods.

 

I've seen a lot of good stuff in this thread already including ethics in the areas of user privacy, machine learning (ML)/ artificial intelligence (AI), and disinformation. In addition, I think there are couple other areas worth mentioning like facial recognition (which could probably fall under AI) and self-driving cars (again, another application of AI).

That said, I'm more concerned with the ethics around certain processes in tech like hiring and work culture in general. For instance, why are we still conducting whiteboard interviews? And, why aren't we compensating folks for those interviews? Also, why aren't more jobs offering remote positions? And, why are we allowing employers to use tracking software for "productivity"? Likewise, why do we stress productivity but allow it to manifest in shortcuts and hacks?

A lot of the stuff I'm most bothered by revolves around tech culture, and I feel like this culture allows for some of the abuses we see in tech (like all the stuff listed in this thread). I have no clue how to address these issues, but I'm definitely interested in hearing others' thoughts!

 

Ethics definition :
moral principles that govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity.

Everybody's morals are different. So asking what's ethical or unethical results in different answers.

 

Video game companies using lootboxes. It's basically unregulated gambling. I'm not against the idea of gambling in general, but it needs regulations to avoid companies taking advantage of people with addictive personalities.

 

The fact that people are praising people for working for corporate giants, literal monsters. "Oh wow, they're working for Facebook", "they're so smart they could work for Google", "I'm sure Amazon would hire talented people like you".

Why would anyone in their right mind want to participate in the monstrosities these companies are committing?

At the very least all AAA game companies, basically all social media companies, all marketing and tracking companies, and other such companies who are working to literally make the world worse for everyone, steal everyone's data, treat their "low class" employees like trash, etc.

Apple is working hard to create a lock-in ecosystem for their users, to actively block them from moving to other platforms. Chinese giants are among other things trying to get various platforms to block criticism of China. Various sharing economy apps are ok with all kinds of abuse by their employees (that they call "contractors" to avoid paying fair wage and taxes), as long as they don't get caught.

The list of ethically incredibly distasteful companies is very long, and they're often places people "dream of working at".