Ethics and The Unintended Consequences of Technology

Progress always comes at a cost. Paper fundamentally changed the way information was stored and distributed, but its production contributes to deforestation. Industrialization increased our standard of living, but has led to much pollution and arguably, even some social ills. The benefits brought by the internet are too many to mention, yet viral misinformation, vast erosion of privacy, and the diminishing patience of society as a whole were all unintended consequences. Not even medicine is free from side effects. This should come as no surprise because hindsight is always twenty-twenty. Rarely at the time of invention is a creator the best judge of how their system will be used, or truly knows what good or harm will come of it. Understanding this, as technologists, we ought to give pause and reflect deeply before taking on a project.

An Individual Responsibility

Realize whatever you do has societal impact. At minimal, if you are getting paid, there is even a measurable worth to your work. To that end, abiding by the law is a good first step. Laws are usually created to enforce ethics because not everyone is ethical. But laws lag ethics and are not always equally enforced against the powerful. Ethics are shared societal values that help us distinguish right from wrong. Just because you can legally do something does not mean you should. Furthermore, there are instances where you should do something ethically sound but legally are not able to. Just ask Snowden or the aides in the Trump administration under NDA.

We voluntarily follow ethics because it makes the world a better place for everyone. Occasionally, we get blinded by our own greed and temporarily forget this. Therefore, it is the personal responsibility of each individual to remind everyone else, and moreover—whenever possible—decline work you deem unethical.

I like doing things that benefit me and believe many resonate with this. But if in doing so there is a ‘cost’ to society, then a simple thought experiment must be performed: If I withhold from doing something unethical that would otherwise benefit me, do I actually benefit more if everyone else in society similarly withholds? If the answer is yes, then as responsible people, we can reason that it is more beneficial to refrain. For example, while watching a movie in the theater, it would be wise and beneficial for me pick up my wife’s phone call.😅   But if everyone were on their phone, no one would be able to enjoy the movie.

The Future

Information Technology is truly the great democratizer. It has a relatively low time-commitment barrier to entry and is more readily accessible to people globally than many other competing fields. Every day, I go into work at Coding Dojo with the understanding that the knowledge I share and gain from students will aid them in being better able to provide for their families, even quadrupling their earlier salaries in some cases. But that knowledge comes at a cost. Seriously, it’s not a free service, we charge.

Students that graduated our coding bootcamp have gone on to work for companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft, and Tesla to name a few. My advice for myself first, and then to my graduates is that rarely will you be placed in a situation where you know that the particular project you are working on is evil. More often than not, you will be playing a very small role in something larger, good or bad. Especially in our field, where our work frequently impacts so many around the world, we should exercise the utmost consideration in thinking about what the overarching goals of our work is, in that of our team, our project, our company, our nation, and our society.

At the behest of their organization, a newscaster might report incidents that truly occurred in a two-sided conflict. But if, for example, their company limits the reporting to only cases where the perpetrator is a specific side, or if particular verbiage is systematically used when the perpetrator is from one side, and then different terminology or strength of reporting used when violence comes from the other side. Then the thoughts, policies, and ill-consequences resulting from said lopsided reporting is not just the responsibility of the company alone, but also that of the individual reporting newscaster who was just doing their job. The same can be said for us.

Think about what you’re building. Who plans to use it? What can it potentially be used for? What are some of the worst-case scenarios if bad-players get their hands on the technology, and what fail-safes can you put into place to mitigate or expose that? Will your system be used to hurt, control, or profile others? If you were born in another country, would you feel different about your technology? What effects on the planet will your project have? Is your system susceptible to bias? With each cultural shift and technological advancement made, we are constantly being forced to reevaluate our policies, traverse new possibilities, deal with unintended consequences. So let’s strive together for a better world and each other.

——

Although I believe my company and co-workers share them, all views expressed herein are my own.

By Authman Apatira, a Lead Instructor at Coding Dojo

Authman Apatira comes to the Dojo with over ten years of professional development experience. With a primary focus in DevOps throughout his career, he has worked in a variety of other fields, such as game and graphics programming, data science, machine learning, and business analytics. Outside of work, Authman is a laid back guy who enjoys a good laugh and watching Korean dramas with his wife and son—neither of which are Korean.

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One thought on “Ethics and The Unintended Consequences of Technology

  1. Progress always comes at a cost. Paper fundamentally changed the way information was stored and distributed, but its production contributes to deforestation. Industrialization increased our standard of living, but has led to much pollution and arguably, even some social ills. The benefits brought by the internet are too many to mention, yet viral misinformation, vast erosion of privacy, and the diminishing patience of society as a whole were all unintended consequences.

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