There is ‘green-washing’ but also ‘ethical washing’.
This analogy may or may not work, but let’s try. When building a house, we move rooms, change flooring, decide on the materials to use, and so on. But some of the underlying assumptions are things like the ‘standard’ height of doorways. These tend to be based on a rough average height of a population. Not great for people over 6 foot. But when in the house building process do you ever get asked about what height you want the doors? Never. Most of us don’t choose the source of the materials for our house, whether copper or plastics pipes are used for the water supply lines.
If we want a eco-friendly house and we only think about the paint on the walls, where the flooring and furniture is sourced, we’ll fail. We need to go ‘behind the walls’ and ‘dig deeper’.
In a similar way, there are a lot of ethical frameworks for technology being created. There are countless guides and meetups for X technology for good. There is a lot of me that gets excited to see this, but there is always a niggle.
I’m excited by this as people are wanting to use technology to improve society. Sometimes to wrestle with complex social problems. When we talk about ‘for good’ it slightly makes me wonder if all the other use cases are deemed ‘bad’? And if so, why did we start with those use cases?
And while I guess that is a niggle too, I have another one. Many of the frameworks and guides I’ve read, are guides that are geared towards using a technology, especially emerging ones, for positive uses in society. In other words, this technology is here, how do we use it for good? To relate it to the house analogy – the house is here so how do we decorate and furnish it in an eco-friendly way?
There is an underlying assumption that the technology is neutral. The assumption is that because it is here, we should use it. It is rare to see a guide or framework asking if the technology should be here in the first place. It is rare to see a guide helping us ‘see’ the underlying bias in the technology itself before it is applied to any situation.
Perhaps we need a framework for evaluating the ethics of and the ‘neutrality’ of the technology we are considering? How do we understand the assumptions and tradeoffs that are built into the codebase?