Making tech ethical – a lost cause?

I quit Computer Science for good in 2014. Not for any ethical reasons. The college I was enrolled in to pursue my post-graduate degree made me ask some basic questions, and towards the end of that process, I couldn’t see myself in tech. I have never looked back except for the passing lure of digital humanities. Not that I was genius at coding either. I had particular interests in user interfaces and web-based applications. When desktop software was becoming obsolete and things were moving to the cloud. One of the first codes I pushed out in the world was while interning with a software firm in Goa. The project was to design a job application portal. I felt I wrote this code, and someone would find a job due to it. I low-key felt proud of myself.

Cut to the recent launch of an app that populated photos of Muslim women and auctioned them online. Someone wrote an entire app, pushed it to GitHub, and has managed to dehumanise a community as a whole purely out of hate. The boy, 21 years of age, was arrested by Mumbai Police. His collaborator is a woman and is 18. Not that such people should get a pass due to their age.

If I recall correctly, Facebook too started as a website that rated women by mining their pictures. Zuckerberg since then has advanced to destroying democracies and making billions of dollars through creating ecosystems of misinformation. Sergei/Larry suppress unions and free speech. Linus Torvalds was taken off Linux Kernel Mailing List (something that he himself started and transformed computing) for his offensive behaviour towards women. Richard Stallman is a sexual harasser. And Bill Gates is killing agriculture and healthcare in Global South through ‘philanthropy’.

Closer to home, Nilekani built Aadhar and Wipro provided the software for NRC.

These guys were our icons once upon a time. White/Upper Caste males, propelled into fame and wealth through their innovations, today have become new-age imperialists with no accountability. They and their corporations have created platforms and problems that wil outlive them.

Who does the current generation of Computer Science students look up to? Maybe Elon Musk. He’s no different. The dudebro culture of the tech industry is a monster that hasn’t been tamed to any measure. It seems far-fetched, but the same culture incubates an environment where an app auctioning Muslim women is possible. Not to forget the poisoning of India’s public discourse with a constant supply of hate and dog-whistling.

In the 2000s, I harboured a naive belief that tech will liberate us. Instead, a decade later it has only exacerbated the precarity of the world that we inhabit. These people, platforms, and products are not elected by people but they exercise so much power in/on this world. They alter policies, economies, erase democracies, control information, abet incarceration of people and every possible crime against the dignity of life.

I wonder what teachers in engineering and computer science departments think about this? How does one respond to this degeneration catalysed by the tech industry as someone engaged in training new tech workers? Should we rethink disciplines? Is it possible to create coders sensitive to the oppression around us? Can they be convinced that the code they write shouldn’t infringe upon people’s right to life and dignity?

Reads old newspapers and researches on Goan History.

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