The amorality of technology

Technology enthusiasts often argue that technology is amoral. When a technology is used for unsavory purposes, that’s a failing of the user not the technology itself. That’s valid to some degree. This argument is sometimes extended to the development community around a technology. That’s never valid.

The delusion that technology, particularly open source projects, is a meritocracy because computers are incapable of moral judgements is ludicrous. Too often “merit” is used to mean “competence from people like me”. To ignore issues of social justice under the guise of “meritocracy” is to implicitly support discrimination.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, even the most well-intentioned of us have implicit biases that color our thoughts and actions. Pretending that they don’t exist or don’t matter does nothing to counteract them. I won’t go so far as to suggest that no one with unsavory views be allowed to participate in a community, but community leaders should expect pushback when their words or actions make contributors or potential contributors feel unwelcome. The contributions made to the community are just as important as those made to the code.

So what about the technology itself? Do developers owe a duty of care to the morality of a technology’s use? Yes, I believe they do. Microsoft’s recent embarrassment with a Twitter chat bot shows how quickly a supposedly amoral technology can be corrupted. I don’t expect a completely incorruptible chat bot, nor do I think adding some guardrails is an easy task. I do think that putting something like that out in public is asking for trouble (a lesson Microsoft has learned in the past and apparently forgotten). It’s a poor reflection on humanity that this is an issue at all, but here we are.

When we develop or promote technology, it is vital that we not use the amorality of ones and zeros as an excuse to ignore the human context. We owe it to our communities and to our users to understand and acknowledge the human element. In the end, what we create is a reflection of us.

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