Beth Buelow, PCC

Woman with cell phone technology ethics

Why You’re a Developer (Even if You Don’t Know Code)

It seems that every time a social media platform — whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, whatever — makes a change, users throw a fit. “I don’t like this! Put it back the way it was!” is the prevailing cry, often expressed in more colorful terms. There are times the outrage is loud enough that the platform yields to backlash. But most often, we go from wallop to whimper as we click our way to inevitable acceptance.

We often speak of these changes as if they are being done to us. We imagine techie millennials in a low-lit room, soaking in screen light, cooking up ways to complicate what was simple and earn more money for their advertisers. There might be a grain of truth to that! And we all know, even if we don’t openly acknowledge it, that it’s not the whole truth.

The question “What is our role and responsibility in the technological landscape as users and consumers?” came up recently as I led a gathering of friends in a discussion about our relationship with technology in the context of our current political climate. The conversation catalyst was social media influencer Anil Dash’s interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett as part of the Civil Conversations Project. We only had time to listen to the first 15 minutes of the interview, but that was more than enough to spur a deep dive into the ethical issues of technology.

The question about our role and responsibility surfaced repeatedly. In the episode (titled “Tech’s Moral Reckoning”), Dash highlighted that those trained in the computer sciences — those creating the platforms we rely on for information and connection — “can get a top-of-the-line, the highest credential computer science degree from the most august institutions with essentially having had zero ethics training.”

Dash also points out that computer science is such a young field, there’s no context for the explosive growth and influence technology is having on our society. That lack of context is amplified by an “anti-historical” attitude amongst techies; nothing existed before now, so there’s nothing to learn from the past.

The combination of these two realities begs the question of responsibility: in decentralized, unchartered territory, who is in charge of setting the standards, guiding innovation, and shaping the debate?

The creators, or the consumers?

With a tangible product, it’s pretty clear who’s in charge. The creator has to commit to the product and take it to market, driven by economies of scale. The feedback loop kicks in eventually, but the cycle of change influenced by consumers is most often measured in years.

Contrast that to our virtual reality, where changes based on market response (or the whims of a developer) can happen in mere months or days, if not hours or minutes.

What facilitates that rapid change, besides the fact that code is infinitely malleable?

One of the participants in our conversation, Rosie, referred to “those in tech” during her remarks. That’s when it hit me: we’re all “in tech.” If you’re online, you’re a developer. Every single click and keystroke we make is an act of co-creation with those unseen techies.

Facebook changes because we change it. The web changes because we change it.

When we — far from anonymously — click “like,” follow someone, hide an ad, read an article, make a purchase, watch a video, comment on a status, or go down the rabbit hole of celebrity gossip and political scandal, we’re telling the platform: “This is me. This is what I want to create.”

During our Civil Conversations gathering, what I had known intellectually took root emotionally: I am responsible.

I am responsible — we are all responsible — for what happens online. We can’t abdicate the duty of being ethically and morally accountable to the paid developers (they have zero-to-bare-minimum training for that, apparently). We are all developers. We set the tone. We determine the content. We tell the techies how, when, and where we send and receive information.

We aren’t at their mercy; we are co-conspirators.

Neither the developers nor the consumers can be confronted with the ethical dilemmas raised by the technology that infiltrates every nook and cranny of our lives and say “that’s not my problem.”

This renewed awareness of my role, this deeper understanding that it is my problem, led me to a few personal truths:

I am a co-creator in my digital universe. I bear equal — if not total — responsibility for creating my experience.

Technology serves at the pleasure of the people, not the other way around. I must act with integrity, rejecting behaviors that violate basic human decency.

Lacking an agreed-upon moral compass that guides online behavior, I must be the “change I wish to see in the world.”

If my digital universe doesn’t reflect my values, then I have to look in the mirror for the solution.

Technology, like everything else in life, can be used for good or for evil. The more I choose good, the less room there is for evil.

My truths may or may not be your truths. My hope is that they serve as a starting point to discern your own sense of responsibility in our global virtual sandbox.

I highly recommend listening to Anil Dash’s interview, as what I’ve reflected upon here is only a tiny piece of the issues raised in his conversation with Krista Tippett. In closing, here are some questions I created for the group to support a personal discernment process, inspired by the Dash/Tippett interview:

  1. What do you want your technological mirror to reflect back at you? What image do you want to see of yourself?
  2. What universal ethical standards do you think are most needed when it comes to how companies use technology (whether that’s using data or building platforms)? What about for us as individuals? If there was a public Online Code of Ethics, what should it include?
  3. How much do you feel your relationship with and use of technology reflects your core values? In what ways has it influenced or clarified your values?
  4. What is our role and responsibility as consumers/users when it comes to the direction of technology? If part of our role is to hold the industry accountable and to a high ethical standard, how do we do that? And how are we doing with that?

As digital tools become more enmeshed in our lives, there’s a danger in becoming passive about their power. Their ubiquitous nature can lead to complacency. Complacency leads to compliance leads to relinquishing our voice. We learned an important lesson in this last election cycle: we can’t let the tail wag the dog. We must be fully awake to our role as consumers and co-creators. Our aspirations to be a high-functioning, healthy society depend on it.

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