Speaking up

Here’s one of the things I’ve started to believe in the last few years: Society has been very good to us, and we owe it to society to become more active to change it for the better (or prevent it from becoming worse). By us, I refer to us tech people – developers, software architects, anyone remotely connected to the highly successful “digitalization” industry. Sure, we used to be the unhappy nerds noone wanted to party with, and maybe at some point in time, self-pity was justified. But those days are long gone. These days, people in this industry make something between a comfortable and a ridiculous amount of money, and often have the luxury of being able to take their pick from multiple job offers. We’re respected, possibly envied, and not only financially: We’re also the ones who know how most of the new-fangled stuff works, at least to a larger degree than most “normal” people; we’re never the ones who are threatened by new technological developments – we’re the ones helping to create the thread. It’s nice to be in that position, and I enjoy it quite a bit. (Not threatening people; you know what I mean.)

I am not saying that the IT industry is inherently bad, or that progress can be stopped, or that work that can be trivially automated shouldn’t be. What I am saying is that we need to start doing those things more responsibly than we did in the past.

On the more trivial side of things, it means that some tech people need to shut up. Just because you’ve been lucky enough to be in the tech industry at the right place and time enabling you to make a metric shit-ton of money doesn’t make you more worthy of attention, or your ramblings on whatever ethical or political problem you write or talk about relevant. When I was younger, I used to believe in the awesomeness, the general genius of some of my tech heroes, independently of what it was they talked about. It turns out that’s a really bad idea, and there are numerous examples of brilliant tech people who turn out to be complete fools when it comes to topics any politics, sociology or psychology major learns within their first university year.

On the more relevant side of things, I believe that we need to speak up, specifically in those cases when our expertise is important to arrive at good decisions. Some examples include the capabilities and limits of machine learning and the related risk of bias, end-to-end encryption and the foolishness of trying to break it a little bit to support law enforcement, the risks of algorithms driving user engagement on social media platforms, the horrible concept of electronic voting, or the lack of accessibility of web sites and apps. While we’re definitely not the right people to make those decisions on our own, it’s an even worse idea for anyone to make them without appropriate technical input.