Opinion: Technology is always Political

I’m writing this opinion piece right now because of ongoing gross abuses of justice taking place in America right now. Don’t worry, as strongly as I feel about this subject, my blog will remain free of specific political advocacy (please follow me on twitter for my politics), but we absolutely need to talk about the relationship between technology and politics. I would love to see your comments here, or you can reach me on twitter if that is more comfortable.

As technical practitioners, we are often under a lot of pressure to focus on tech and minimize other subjects, especially contentious subjects like politics. These subjects can cause conflict and many of us are taught to avoid, rather than resolve, conflict. We are constantly told that talking about tech is great; maybe talk about your sports teams, music, craft beers – but never talk about politics. That’s divisive! Sure, sometimes politics may cause conflict and even alienate people, but that’s just an aspect of life, of who we are, and not something to box up and hide in a corner. We soon find that everything is political – and if it’s not, it will still be made political for us. Our politics reflect who we are, and we strive to grow and change over time, and it stands to reason that our politics grow and change with us. I find Scott Hanselman to be very eloquent on the relation of politics to self, probably because it comes up so often on his timeline:

Once you share your politics, like Scott, you may be told to stick to technology. But if everything is political, then technology must be political, too. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It never has and it never will. We must stop pretending that technology exists free from politics. Our community benefits from embracing this truth, not denying it.

Examination of our industry’s early history quickly shows the relationship between technology and politics. Let’s review the history of IBM during World War II. In 1933, IBM started cozying up to the Hitler regime to increase sales, starting with an innocuous sounding census. Having machine-tabulated census data allowed the German government to rapidly increase their prosecution of the Holocaust. Eventually, every Nazi concentration camp used IBM punch card technology to track prisoners – which IBM serviced under contract.

This was not an isolated act of the company or an oddity of IBM’s German subsidiary. This happened in America, too. IBM pursued and acquired the contract for the Japanese internment camps’ punch cards, at the same time its equipment was used for US Army and Navy cryptography. IBM was okay with the use of its punch card equipment to identify, round up, and track prisoners, even by a country at war with IBM’s home country, so as long as IBM got paid.

Neither of these efforts just “happened.” IBM employees developed the punch card technology. IBM employees had to contact the German and US governments to open sales channels. IBM employees  had to pursue and close sales contracts with the German and US governments. IBM employees had to provide support, spare parts, and even enter concentration camps to change the printer paper throughout World War II.

Numerous people were required to prosecute the Holocaust and the Japanese internment. Only a few were technologists, and fewer still worked for IBM. But all of them allowed their personal political and ethical views to be subsumed and harnessed to a political regime that enacted some of the worst atrocities in the history of humankind. We do not know exactly what these people intended, but history has recorded the outcome and judged it. No amount of, “Well, I didn’t mean that to happen,” or, “I didn’t want to take sides,” will ever change that.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

And here we are again, in 2018, observing numerous authoritarian efforts, by both governments and public/private companies, to weaponize technology. Again, this does not just “happen.” Someone has to actively develop, sell, provide, and support these weaponized technologies. Each of us must inform ourselves of how the technologies we work on can be weaponized and used for evil. Implicit and subconscious bias will creep into products, but very frequently, efforts are consciously and overtly made to weaponize technologies. Original intent is never remembered, only the horrible outcomes.

Earlier, I stated that we should have and develop our own political views. In accepting that technology is intrinsically political, our use of technology may then become political advocacy. For example, If we are strongly in favor of a legal right, using a technology designed to interfere or suppress that right would be antithetical to our politics. Thus, our political views should drive our use of technology.

To avoid advocating for specific political views, I suggest that we all commit to a formal code of ethics that closely matches our political views. I highly recommend USENIX’s System Administrators’ Code of Ethics (more in Additional Links). It is straightforward and thorough, is compatible with most political viewpoints, and has stood the test of time within our industry. A chosen code of ethics is only helpful if we stick by it. Not just when it’s easy, but especially when it’s difficult!

So what happens if we do find ourselves involved with a system that can be weaponized, that violates our ethics and politics? How do we advocate our politics and maintain our ethical code when we have significant concerns? “It depends,” of course, on those concerns and how significant they are, on our relationship with the system, and on who we are providing for. We must each determine an inflection point where it passes from, “Can this still be saved?” to, “This cannot be saved.” Everyone’s inflection point will be different – we all have different politics and ethics, finances, health, and family situations, etc. – but we must each determine exactly where that point is for us.

Inflection point in hand, we can proceed to an action plan. We may be able to work fully above board, making cases to stakeholders and management. Or we may have to move below board, purposefully dragging our feet or working against the system. Maybe a change in vendors will address concerns or slow progress, maybe we just don’t do certain things at all. Find the appropriate monkey wrench that fits the gears of the system. We must plan our activities as we would any other technical work, laying out our goals and milestones and alternative plans for when disaster strikes.

We can also lean on each other. Reach out to your coworkers, your colleagues and peers, your friends and family, to voice your concerns and discuss remedies. We are not alone, and we can lean on or be the rock for each other. We may want to confide in just a few trusted people, to organize with our coworkers, or to become whistleblowers. There is so much nuance and possibility here that it is impossible to predict what actions will be required, but together we can determine what those actions are.

There may come a day when we find that we cannot stop the dangerous technology, when we have crossed that inflection point. We have to evaluate, honestly, whether there is still good we can do, or if we have truly passed the point of no return and need to walk away. Many of us will never be close to making these kinds of decisions, but some of us will. We must rely on our ethical codes and our planning to remain true, to see the point of no return, and to walk away, even if it costs us. To stay and actively participate knowing that we are now doing irrevocable harm would be costlier.

This is not a one-time deal. We must always keep our eyes open, evaluating our ever-changing political views against the work in front of us, applying our ethics to keep us on track, and making damn sure that we are never – metaphorically or literally – changing the printer paper in a concentration camp.

We will not build the software for concentration camps or to enable authoritarians. We will not spy on our neighbors or destroy democracies. We will commit to our ethical codes of conduct, and we will use technology to build the shining city on a hill.

Thank you.

 

 

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