There’s a tension in tech, between doing good and getting rich.
On the surface, almost every technologist or company wants to do good. The big companies are “mission-driven”, the startups are setting out to change the world. The bright-eyed CS major wants to “code for social impact”.
Google’s famous unofficial motto sums up tech’s idealism: Don’t be evil.
Many technologists believe these ideals earnestly; I’m one of them.
But it’s hard to reconcile that with the growing lawsuits against our industry. A few days ago, Amazon settled a Federal Trade Commission investigation for $62 million. The company had been withholding tips from their Amazon Fresh and Prime Now drivers. They were misleading both users, who thought the tip was paid to the driver, and drivers, who were told that every paycheck included 100% of customer tips.
The lie was first uncovered when a driver ordered a delivery to his own house. He tipped $12, but only received a $3 tip.
Of course, corruption happens. As far as I can tell, it’s rampant in every industry, even in first-world, regulated countries like the U.S.
But it’s still hard for me to wrap my head around this: Who was the engineer who implemented those lines of code? Who was the engineering manager who approved the pull request? How many other engineers on the team understood what was happening? How many business people understood what was happening?
How many young people were complicit, who just a few years earlier had shilled for “social impact”? Why were there no whistleblowers?
I can imagine how it happens. In fact, I caught whiffs of it at a startup I once worked for. For context, I adored this startup, and they did a lot of things right. We had one of the most diverse teams I had ever seen in tech: more than 50% women, many different races, and, as far as tech companies go, a reasonably diverse spread of ages. We had a positive-sum mission that I fully expect to come to fruition.
Still, I witnessed the temptations, especially when covid hit and money got tighter. We’d consider implementing a feature that would be strictly better for the customer (clearer language, less-confusing UX), and someone would say: But won’t this reduce our GMV? Is that really a risk we can take right now?
My coworkers weren’t greedy. In their eyes, they were making necessary tradeoffs for the greater good. If we don’t make our numbers, we won’t get the next round of funding. And without that funding, we won’t ever fulfill on our positive-sum, idealistic mission that will benefit everyone.
Maybe they have a point. Some people would argue that the only option is to be cutthroat, otherwise your competitors will cut corners and get ahead of you, and then you won’t have a business at all. If Uber doesn’t cut corners, will Lyft?
I think we’re letting ourselves off too easy. Perhaps we are just suffering from the same delusions that radicals often suffer from. If we say we are doing good frequently enough, then we must be doing good. Doing good is hard, we say. Doing good doesn’t always look like doing good. Tradeoffs must be made. Sometimes you have to skim off the top of your minimum wage workers in order to satisfy your investors…
I’m not convinced.
Graduating medical students take the Hippocratic oath, where they swear to act ethically in the line of duty. Why do doctors take an oath? Well, they often hold a patient’s life in their hands. And with great power comes great responsibility.
As tech eats the world, our power level is growing. And with great power comes great responsibility.
Technologists want to make the world a better place, especially when we are young. But as we face more complex tradeoffs, and ogle the riches we see around us, sometimes we forget those ideals. I want us to hold onto them. I want us to hold ourselves to high ethical standards, even in moments of temptation.
A strange and wondrous future
The Technofuturist’s Oath
With that in mind, I’d like to propose the Technofuturist’s Oath, an oath that we can recall when faced with difficult decisions.1
Ideally the Technofuturist’s Oath would be crowdsourced based on the prevailing ideals of tech, but I’ve taken a stab at the first draft:
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won technological gains of those on whose shoulders I stand, and gladly share such knowledge with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of humanity, my best ethical judgement in product decisions, avoiding the temptation to lie, cheat or steal to benefit myself or my company.
I will remember that there is art to technology as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may sometimes outweigh growth concerns.
I will not justify my actions because ‘my manager told me to’, nor will I fail to approach my colleagues if they are tempted to grow the business through exploitative means.
I will remember that I do not just affect numbers on a screen, but lovable human beings, whose interaction with my product, as a user, employee, or contractor, may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to live up to my ideals.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those with technological skillsets as well as those without.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of creating for humanity.2
Every field should have its version of the Hippocratic oath to treat (the ill) to the best of one's ability, to preserve privacy, to teach the secrets (of medicine) to the next generation. Especially looking at tech, journalism, academia. Make a covenant with something greater.— Nikita S (@singareddynm) February 3, 2021
If you’re curious, here’s the original Hippocratic Oath that doctors take:
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.
I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.
I will not be ashamed to say “I know not”, nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.
I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.
I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.