Soup, Then Prayers


I just finished reading a book on ethics for people who work in tech, and the easiest way to sum it up is to say that books like this are why most people in tech don’t know much about ethics. The author isn’t writing for a programmer in their twenties with little or no background in the humanities or social sciences who is increasingly troubled by their profession’s enthusiastic embrace of profitable dystopia. Instead, their nods toward Bruno Latour, Sherry Turkle, and others make it clear that their real audience is other academics who are already working in this area. I would say that they’re preaching to the choir, but that’s not quite right: it’s more a case of casually quoting scripture in the faculty common room in order to confirm their membership of a particularly rarefied in-group.

Which, as you may have already guessed, makes me feel more than a little bit guilty. I used to start my lecture on dictionaries in Python by explaining how hashing worked and why the differences between mutable and immutable data types mattered. None of that mattered to my actual audience at their actual stage of development. Looking back, I realize that my real purpose was to reassure any “real” programmer wandering past the room (and myself) that I was one of the faithful. The same was true of some of the political causes I was involved in as a student. Nobody was ever going to read the statements and flyers we agonized over; their real purpose was to provide an arena in which we could one-up each other’s insight and zealotry.

I haven’t linked to this particular book for two reasons. First, it could be any of a dozen that have appeared in the last few years. Second, criticizing books like this makes you a target for accusations that your heart’s not really in the fight or that you want to water down the issues so as not to offend the privileged. I don’t think either is true (but of course I’d say that). Instead, I remember something I was told by someone who worked at a church soup kitchen: “Some places make folks say a prayer before feeding them. I think they’re more likely to believe we mean what we say if we feed them first and then let them decide if they want to stick around for the talking.”

Software Carpentry succeeded because we stopped trying to foist cool bits of computer science on people who regarded programming as a tax they had to pay in order to get their research done and started teaching them things that computer scientists thought of as trivial but which were useful right away. I still hope someone will do the equivalent for ethics in tech. I still hope someone who understands the field better than I do will write a book for programmers who aren’t already believers. If that’s you, please let me know: I have a lot to learn, and would be grateful for your guidance.