Bigotry and Discrimination, on average (Reading 04)

This was my first time reading the infamous memo from the recently dismissed Google-employee. I avoided it for the longest time, knowing it would set me on edge. I am not as angry as I thought I would be, more amused at his attempt to defend his position from an ostensibly informed, considered standpoint.

Briefly, I’ll disclose my stance on what’s become a fairly political event. I fully agree with Google’s decision to dismiss the employee who distributed this memo, and I think the note to employees from Sundar Pichai was an appropriate and well-considered response to the backlash against this decision. As he says, it was in the employee’s right to critique the ideology that predominates at Google, every workplace has one. Still, comments that reinforce gender stereotypes leave particular members of the team feeling prejudged or accosted. Distributing the memo was a deliberate action that gives recipients who do not fit into his social outlook the impression that they do not belong. As Mx Kas Perch says, we do not need bad actors.

But let’s consider how this employee actually makes his argument. His rhetoric came across not as caustic but impartial and informed. Most of his controversial statements rested on the phrase “on average.” We could hear him responding to Pichai’s allegation in advance, saying, “I wasn’t targeting anyone! I was just speaking about gender differences on average!” He’s able to say a lot with this helpful modifier, that, on average, women are more drawn towards feelings and aesthetics than ideas, on average, women are more agreeable, on average, women are more prone to neuroticism, etc. My personal favorite is when he says men are, on average, more prone to systemizing. Well look at you! median male! following your biological disposition and systemizing! He admits that biases exist, hastily dividing up right and left outlook as he sees them, then acts like he’s dispelled all bias from his statement. How are we to trust his argument when everyone has inherent biases. Oh right, because he’s backed up with facts, statistics, the real stuff, just what a systemizing male should, on average, use to make an argument. He talks like he climbed up to Mount Sinai and got handed a set of normal distributions. He has footnotes all over the damn place, which I didn’t bother to read but they might as well have said ‘Jehovah’ because I don’t know where else he could have verified these findings. He begins, “On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because…they’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective.” Oh great, I’ll just throw out my Judith Butler then because this techie did the maths and found out what he perceived as average traits are biologically conditioned. Evolutionary theory is just one theory among others, and there is not a single alternative called “social construction.” Theories of epistemology and culture are a complicated affair, and these sort of hasty rationalist arguments can only support themselves by ignoring almost the entirety of the conversation on that subject. I have heard Steven Pinker argue a similar case, that social theories are biased against heritability for political reasons, and for a closing argument he disparaged Judith Butler’s work. He did not even seriously present her views, but selected a unfairly difficult passage to show his audience how obtuse critical theory had become. Well I understood it, and considering that he gave this presentation as a TED talk, mainly a popular science venue, I think he was preaching to the choir.

I would love to hear what the writer of this memo has to say to Amy, who wrote her story as an Uber survivor. Is that supervisor’s vile, harassing, and remorseless behavior part of his biological make up as well? Should she move into more empathetic roles and let men with no remorse take on the grueling exploitation? He is much to quick to assume the way things appear to him are as they are and should be. Some truly visionary person, who isn’t so complacent and won’t fit squarely into his schema, will prove him tragically wrong.

Work and Quality of Life (Reading 03)

When I first began my year studying abroad in Dublin, I was prepared to spend much of my time studying. I was taking about six courses in Trinity’s excellent English program and wanted to get the most that I could from them. The experience of living in a new culture was minor afterthought, a small adjustment before I could maximize my learning. After all most of my family identified as Irish; maybe the country would just fit my genetic disposition. During our first welcome sessions, one of the staff members at Notre Dame remarked that the quality of life was very important in Ireland, not so much the demands of business or even crafts. I thought, well yes but isn’t it important to everyone? The time I spent studying isn’t to produce wealth or advance some industry, it’s to broaden my outlook and enhance the quality of my interactions with others, since I have more knowledge to draw upon and share.

As I took a morning run around the city (as I routinely did most mornings) and was heckled by a group of teenagers, then several older men and women, I started to realize I might be experiencing an actual cultural difference. They just do not have the same virtues set before them. We are fed notions of progress and achievement that should motivate our every action. It is extremely common to see someone running through an American city,  just to get more miles in. There are plenty of good runners in Ireland, but they are usually seen in the parks or somewhere more pleasant to run through. It is not a routine performed compulsively every morning. I noticed that students were less fixated on concrete goals in class as well. There was only one longer assignment for the end of each class, but I still felt like I had catching up to do for each class. The students were incredibly intelligent, making beautifully phrased comments that seemed to sum up what I might take whole six-page papers to demonstrate. The ideas in class were not well contained by certain learning goals or study guidelines; everyone was free to contribute original thoughts that they often gained from material outside the syllabus. Unexpectedly, I learned the most from listening to students in class or having scattered conversations around the school. There is a level of understanding about some texts that cannot be achieved by any structured approach. Ulysses or the theory surrounding it, Derrida, Cixous and the like, cannot be logically outlined like a formal analysis. Their writing operates in a certain way that you have to approach from all different directions, not just in line with good study habits. Ulysses itself only treats of one day, reminding us how much there is to be appreciated in the moments that always pass us by as we think about career goals.

I agree with Dan Kim’s blog: Eat, sleep, code, repeat does not make you a better programmer. There are many more aspects to what we do and what makes for good code than working endlessly. We see accomplishment as an essential virtue. This slogan might intend some groundbreaking software as a sign of accomplishment, but the metric for most companies is the profit generated. In its earliest usage virtue was not tied to progress but referred to a balanced, rational life in accord with a higher purpose. Seeing progress and invention as a virtue closes us off from the best software we can make, for we miss all the wonder our work should be celebrating. These arguments that guest workers drive down the wages are paper thin, since when you look at mere numbers, arbitrarily setting American earnings as a priority, you are ignoring the benefits for those guest workers and how much they can bring to the community (I found Microsoft’s letter a very touching profession of this sentiment, and I haven’t touched on the DACA but I consider the motions to revoke it horrible and tyrannical). To me imposing barriers on these exchanges may ostensibly increase some salaries but it does so in a rather usurious fashion by cutting off the real flow of labor and capital. Any anti-immigration argument comes down to a veiled ploy to perpetuate the supremacy of a certain class and exclude the other.

Project 01: Code of Ethics reflection

For our code of ethics, we divided the document into three sections pertaining to the different spheres in which we can talk about ethics. The first section deals with the personal sphere. In it we listed personal codes of conduct that we would follow in our work lives. This section was a lot of fun but probably read like the least ‘ethical’ parts of this document, as we usually understand that term, denoting the absolute good and bad. I would remind everyone that ethics derives primarily from the greek term ethos, which means something like custom or abode. Therefore, it is not our mission here to stay in line with the absolutely good (in which we might not include the ‘ballmer zone’) but certain practices that we find conducive to better programming and living habits. For most of us the ballmer zone could fall under that category, in the sense that it is a beneficial custom, part of the ethos of a programmer. We also added the important advice to not let this step over the line, to the point that we are coding under the influence. I think to not code and drive is great advice as well, as many of us are tempted to keep coding while doing almost anything (maybe not driving for me, but still). This is exactly the kind of limit that should be marked down in a code of ethics, so we can refer back to it and know some limit has been imposed, although it seems like a good idea at the time. I often code well while listening to music with more thoughtful lyrics and reflecting on them, and sometimes I will cook and still be thinking about code and writing some. However, this could be dangerous if I have a more complicated recipe, so I should consider whether my behavior violates the spirit of our code. In the personal section we also touched upon honesty, cheating and other matters of personal integrity. These are important principles for which we are personally accountable, for such dishonesty might go unnoticed and not clearly harm others, but it will hinder our development as persons.

The academic and societal sections tried to expand our ethical principles to include academic work and societal outcomes. The academic section was fairly straightforward, for there have already been many principles and customs set up to guide our behavior. I find the most important principle to be respect for our teachers, since outside of research they are only working to help us and improve our work, not just test us arbitrarily. We also advised that students think about their learning rather than how their transcript looks, which I see as related. When we moved on to the societal section, we began speaking in more general terms, enjoining more conscientious software that does not lead to harmful effects. Our imperatives became nonspecific, asking that we avoid software that could be harmful without illustrating what such harm would be, or how it could take root. We did manage to make a few clearer imperatives, like the call to not produce discriminatory software. However, I find that imperative misleading because discrimination will not be clearly inscribed within our code. It has to do with the socioeconomic environment in which we release the software, and how accessible it is to various groups.

This final section is the main weakness of our document. We generalize too much and try to speak about what is absolutely good in software development. I am not pinning blame on any writers of this code, for I would have done the same given this assignment. It simply becomes impossible to make sensible statements as the scope becomes broader, and we must speak about the broader effects of our software rather than our form of conduct as a software engineer. This is not something that we could revise and improve, however. Wittgenstein once said in his short lecture on ethics: “if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world.” Our language is meant to carry across statements about natural occurrences, circumstances that we must describe for some utility. Ethics surpasses those limits, so when we try to speak about the absolute good we run our heads up against those limits, which is what happened in our last section. Still, Wittgenstein says he cannot help but admire the effort, this particularly human striving towards those limits. That’s about how I feel after this exercise. It was helpful to list out what we take to be good conduct, and at least attempt to picture what we take as the absolute good for software. It was well worth the effort, for keeping those imperatives in mind could make us a bit more responsible and caring in our work.

The Best People (reading 02)

I had fun with the last two blog posts, honestly. I enjoyed taking a more distanced approach to general moral questions, relating it to texts by Derrida and deconstructing our notions of merit. But when it came to this blog post I was a bit frightened, and it will probably be much more personal this time. I think that will be the general trend this semester, as the subjects get more difficult and emotional. This is by no means the hardest topic we will touch on, but as I started thinking of topics to write about I just ended up browsing for jobs and agonizing over my resume. Part of me wants to carry on my last discussion of merit, pointing out how the means of assessment for corporations has not fully unpack all the inherent biases against gender and social status, perhaps it never can. I’ve been reading a lot of Adrienne Rich, and I am part of me is thinking about how good software or valuable technology has only been defined within a patriarchal society organized around men’s desires. I could also throw in some Deleuze and Guattari and talk about the Oedipalization of consciousness at work in the corporate mindset, inscribing desire as a lack to be filled by a consumer item. But I just think forward to next year and what opportunities I have been given, and the people in my life that I want to support as best I can. My girlfriend who I love plans to attend medical school wherever I can find work, so she herself can eventually practice medicine primarily for medicaid patients (something many doctors are not willing to do on account of low compensation). It’s a goal a completely support, and I want to do everything I can to ensure she’s successful. As much as I love to talk theoretically about the inherent bias of employee/candidate assessment, I must aim at these industry standards on the way to achieve these future goals.

Thinking about these prospects and the immense pressure that crowds up around them, it makes me very sympathetic to marginalized groups. Considering how I feel about conforming to the standard  of worthy hires, slightly apprehensive and uncomfortable, I cannot imagine how outsiders feel; because socio-economically I am not an outsider. I have been given every opportunity for success, but even for me at this point the path forward appears constricted. To the marginalized the standard before them is much farther from the self-image that has dragged on every bit of progress they’ve made. When pursuing careers that hegemonic cultural standard, always in opposition to the minority groups, must close further in to be suffocatingly tight. I can see how, in that position, such groups can feel so unfree, since the standards for the best life, the best career, all the existential possibilities that make up our cultural fabric, do not overlap whatsoever with the cultural identity they have been given to fulfill.

I am not assigning any blame to companies, which I know aspire towards considerate and fair hiring processes. I began this blog as a reflection on the apprehension I feel towards entering a career, and ended up reflecting on marginalization and the nature of freedom. I still aspire to do good work in the industry, by continuing to learn, share knowledge, and be open to other people. However, I believe that any talk of merit as essential and identifiable must be founded on exclusion. If it is a true report, the rankings of employees, as though merit or even effectiveness could be put on such a binary system, proves my point.

Late Introduction (Reading 00)

I forgot to introduce myself before my first post, Sorry! Anyways, my name is John Nolan, I am studying Computer Science and English. This will be my last year at Notre Dame, so I am having to think about what positions I will apply to and where I want to take my life. Hopefully this class will give me clearer ideas about that. I am also writing an English thesis this year that strongly relates to ethics, so a lot of my thought in this class will probably feed into that work (oddly it also has a bit to do with the philosophy of technology, which I am sure will be applicable here).

I cannot say that I had any strong conviction when I chose the computer science major. I knew I would have to have an engineering degree to appease my parents, but I also wanted to study some sort of art or humanities. I thought computer science would have the most to do with media and expression, and I was also pretty capable with the matlab assignments freshmen year. So I settled on the computer science major, along with English.

Now I am glad I picked the computer science major, since I think it intersects well with my interests. I have become much more interested in philosophy while I was here, and I like thinking about what problems new technologies pose for the human condition and philosophy of mind. More particularly, I am fascinated by the philosophy of language. My favorite philosopher now is Wittgenstein. He is a major part of my thesis and just on my mind most of the time. I have some desire to work in NLP because the field could benefit from some awareness of the ideas put forward in Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. Although that is the area I am most excited to pursue in the future, my other interests include film, music and literature. My favorite directors are Fassbinder, Tarkovsky, Fellini, and Pasolini (who’s on this site’s cover photo). I read a lot of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Emily Dickinson, and other American poets. As far as music I listen to John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, and some punk like Patti Smith or Pavement.

I cannot narrow down one particular ethical issue in the computer field, but I definitely want to discuss how pervasive it has become and the way it is shaping our daily lives.

The Idle Class (Reading 01)

History is full of clever inventions to justify exploits by the upper class, and for Silicon Valley merit has been the most effective one. In Marxist theory capital must be abstracted from the absolute source of value, labour. Merit as an essential value is nonsensical within such a theory, as personal merit can only exist within a certain relation to capital. Now Silicon Valley believes that not only do its inhabitants possess merit that justifies their extreme wealth, but that they have also created a successful meritocracy. The articles we read today rightly call this idea a myth. Silicon Valley leaders have adopted a worldview that can sustain the trajectory of innovation and appropriation. Promoting universal access to software, they claim anyone can achieve in their field and present software solutions to needs that required an entire profession. There is no denying that software is a powerful force, but seeing it as a purely technical field with its own ineluctable objectives had obscured its status as a cultural object.

Let’s think more about what merit means in this context. When we say certain entrepreneurs earned their way, we mean they had something like genius, some superior insight to the demands of the shifting social landscape. We seem to demand the existence of such a quality when we start to ask questions like, why was it them? How could one person change the daily lives of so many people? We are amazed by how things are, and begin to look for explanations, almost thinking that we will find some nameable object to explain how that came about. We posit something like genius within the entrepreneurs, who seem impossibly situated in such an influential position. Really, we could reach similar amazement if we follow such questioning about any daily object, asking how it came to be assembled and so situated in our daily lives. Genius does not hold up as a personal quality; it rests on historical contingency and societal affirmation. So the idea of a meritocracy should not be critiqued solely for its unacknowledged background of personal privilege, although there is much to be said of that, but also for the questionable status of merit in any society. Merit is never an intrinsic trait but a socially defined one. The merit of a given person, or even software, has been determined by preexisting power relations, so there is no such thing as an unbiased evaluation. These power relations can never be separated from the creation of software, which must fulfill a certain economic role. Nevertheless, some software developers have sunk so deep into their bourgeois ideology that they no longer recognize it. Rather than a means to increase the production of capital, software has become a kind of utopian mission, creating a society where a few can maintain software and the rest can reap the benefits as the idle class. Now the Bourgeois class does not even credit the laborers with the work that was their one rightful claim. I wonder how many of them would want to join the idle class.

Still I do not feel there is no hope for Silicon Valley’s ethos. I am still working in computer science after all, so I must seem some good in it. I still find certain projects pursued in Silicon Valley fascinating and would consider working there, but I want to somehow change the predominant mindset. We need to pay more attention to software as a cultural object.  Software shapes lives, but not through the objective necessity of scientific progress. The software we publish deserves as much care and consideration as a play or a political treatise. In the same way it can shape the world around us, not just allowing for more leisure but enriching our way of life.

Jobs’ Pharmacy (Reading 00)

We buy computers just as we would buy a car, with a good sense of what we need it to accomplish and plenty of research beforehand. We come back to the dealer and make sure it is secure in our home, perhaps testing it carefully and stowing it away in its designated spot. Later on in their use cycle, we forget that these items had both equal status as treasured commodities. The car’s features disappear behind the routine of our daily commute, and the computer is a mere aperture for a world of possibilities online. As information technologies become more pervasive, the common notion of technology as a tool enabling some more efficient work becomes less suitable. Perhaps internet addiction has made this incongruity more apparent (no one has ever considered hammering addiction or driving addiction a possibility). Technology does not merely enable further actions but structures the world around us, changing how we interpret and engage with other things. Jonathan Harris is grappling with this idea(which dates from 1953, in an essay by Heidegger) in a biological metaphor. He sees information technology as a socio-organic development beyond individual, Darwinian evolution. Following his biological metaphor he takes software as medicine, which could help or harm the population.

Software is either the poison or cure: in other words, the pharmakon. This is a Greek term that could be rightly translated as either word, two antonyms in most modern languages. Derrida makes much of this word’s appearance in Plato’s Phaedrus, in which writing is presented to a god as the pharmakon. Translators today must decide between ‘poison’ and ‘cure,’ perhaps given the perceived sense in context. They must repeat the same choice made by the god, who declares it a poison that would cause forgetfulness rather than a remedy that would aid failing memory. Also at the center of Derrida’s reading is the term pharmakos, meaning a ceremonial scape-goat, which does not appear in the text.

Derrida wants to show how such an arbitrary choice, an exclusion of some level of meaning, introduces the structure of western metaphysics. At the beginning of metaphysics there is mark of difference, an arbitrary choice between inside and outside, cure and poison, essence and appearance. I love this stuff but I do not want to go too far into this text right now. I just thought that given the medicine analogy in Jonathan Harris, and his revaluation of technology, it was too perfect not to mention. Harris suggests that we must think of technology as a medicine to care after the new information society. He says, “Darwinian evolution at the individual level is about to be transcended by another kind of evolution at the species level.” Through the computer network a more complex organism is taking shape, he argues, and programmers must care after it by introducing proper medicine. The software can become addictive, like illegal narcotics, or helpful, like penicillin or ibuprofen. But even with this analogy have we come any closer to delimiting the poison and cure in software? Derrida states in the Plato’s Pharmacy that any disease is essentially an allergy; it has to do not with an essential ailment but with limits, an act of exclusion like the pharmakos. There’s no denying that software has the power to shape our lives, but with its inexorable development and extension there is not a clear delimiter between harmful and beneficial software. Still, I would not argue that such radical break in moral thinking takes place with the advent of software. Such pervasive, yet contingent, changes in human existence have taken since the advent of technology, including the activity of writing.