Reading 01

As the fourth of five children in my family, I learned very quickly that life isn’t fair. Along with this lesson, however, my parents also instilled in us the notion that it didn’t matter that life wasn’t fair because if you didn’t like something, it was up to you to do everything you could to change it. This message is simple, yet effective. It’s empowering. Instead of focusing on the challenges I might face when attempting to do something and resigning to them, I had a more positive and productive outlook on things by remembering that I had the ability to effect change. This is a message that more children should be taught and that more people in general should remember.

Before I continue, I would like to formally acknowledge that I, like everyone else, am biased by my personal experience of life. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. These varying life experiences are the basis for the diversity that people like Scott Page argue is so important. On the other hand, some people argue that these biases create an unfair environment under the disguise of meritocracy in the tech industry. This group of thought also defines a meritocracy as an environment in which people succeed solely based on merit of technical skills. I disagree with this definition. It might be relevant if technology didn’t affect other people and its consequences were restricted to the technology being developed and its developer. We all know that’s not how it works though, and that contradicts the purpose of technology. I would instead consider meritocracy to be an environment in which people succeed based on their skills of any kind, not just specifically their technical skills. Under this definition, the tech industry is a meritocracy. Under the original definition mentioned, I would say that meritocracy is an ideal worth pursuing.

Most of the arguments against the claim that the tech industry is meritocratic strike me as highly political. They focus on differences in race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.  While I realize that these factors do influence every individual’s experience, I don’t quite buy that if a person was skilled and determined enough, they still wouldn’t be able to overcome these difficulties (at least not in America which is the region I will focus on since (1) I am most familiar with this culture since I was born and raised here and (2) the articles mostly criticize Silicon Valley). Like I said earlier, this may be a product of my upbringing, but I don’t think it hurts to approach life with this “can do”/”where there’s a will there’s a way” attitude. In fact, I find it more harmful, discouraging, and debilitating to teach people that the world is against you for things that are out of your control.

In Silicon Valley Isn’t a Meritocracy. And It’s Dangerous to Hero-Worship Entrepreneurs, Alice Marwick provides the following reasons to support her claim that the tech industry is not a meritocracy: “This requires middle- to upper-class wealth, which filters out most people” and “There are levels of participation that are enabled by either being wealthier of having the free time to participate.” Marwick seems to suggest that people of lower economic status are automatically excluded or prevented from succeeding solely because of their economic status. I think if someone were really determined or had a good idea and the skills to succeed, they could find funding or use crowdsourcing to gain support for their idea and eventually make it happen. If they needed time to make their idea happen, they would have to be willing to take the risk of quitting their job to focus on accomplishing this. Many people are already doing this from parents who quit their jobs so they can start a business to others who leave their full-time jobs to pursue careers in YouTube.

Furthermore, when talking about meritocracy, Marwick comments that “The result of this mythology is that it denies the role of personal connections, wealth, background, gender, race, or education in an individual’s success.” Once again, the danger of believing this is that it tells people they can’t do things because of these factors instead of empowering them to change their situation. Networking and effective communication are skills, and if those are required to create personal connections or acquire financial funding, then people should be encouraged to develop those skills instead of just blaming their situation on everyone and everything else. Facing challenges doesn’t set you apart from other people nor does it make you successful. Overcoming challenges does. Someone who has or is able to develop the skills necessary to succeed within the tech industry would be able to use these skills to overcome any disadvantages and succeed just as much as someone who came in without any disadvantages to begin with. That’s why I see the industry as meritocratic.

Even if you don’t believe meritocracy is an accurate representation of the current state of the tech industry, it is productive to treat it as one as long as it is properly interpreted. If meritocracy is promoted as an environment where people with a strong work ethic and good character succeed, it encourages people to work harder. If it is framed as the systemic oppression of helpless people, then people are discouraged and more likely to quite early on, attributing their failure to anything other than themselves and not taking responsibility for their own failures and successes. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; people don’t work as hard and don’t get as far because they believed all along that they were doomed to fail before they even began. It’s the difference between blaming others’ success on “pushyocracy” as Dawn Nafus would put it and recognizing that persistence and persuasion are important skills when working with people and developing technology that you want them to use (Nafus quoted in Joseph Reagle’s Naive meritocracy and the meanings of myth).

Maybe I’ve just been lucky and not faced the oppression or discrimination that others have. Maybe I’m just like Meredith Patterson who was mentioned in Joseph Reagle’s article. Or maybe it doesn’t matter where I’ve come from because I believe I can be better than I am today – not without the help of other people and not just with the skill set I have today, but with the understanding that I am capable of learning, of growth, and that I can find a way to make things happen if I want to. It might not be easy or pretty or straightforward, but it’s doable. And it starts with me. And if you want to succeed, it starts with you. It starts with encouraging children that they can do it too.

Reading 00

In the Parable of the Talents, a master rewards and praises two of his servants who doubled his talents in his absence and reprimands the servant who preserved the single talent he was given rather than losing it or using it to make more for his master. When considering this parable in the context of this course, the talents in this parable are like the computing skills we have. Their fullest potential is realized when the servants trade them and double the amount, and talents are wasted when they are buried. Similarly, our computing skills and talents grow and come to fruition when we use them to help others. By trading the talents they were given, the two servants were able to double what they had. This concept is echoed by Jeff Atwood when he writes that “by helping others become better programmers, you too would become a better programmer.”

Trading talents and using computers with the intention of improving people’s lives and helping people become the best version of themselves doesn’t come without risks. The servant who buried the talent he was given did so out of fear, probably because he couldn’t guarantee that he would walk away with at least a single talent if he had tried to trade it. When developing software, there is always a chance that a mistake will be made that has negative consequences. However, we cannot let this deter us from trying to use our skills to help people. There are measures we can take to try to minimize the chances of causing harm. Being informed and educated about how to do something before attempting to do it is a good start, especially if it has grave consequences.

Another important idea that is presented in this parable is integrity. Integrity is consistent with the discussion of ethics, and it exhibits a mastery of ethical behavior because a person with integrity acts ethically at all times. This message comes across when the master says “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much” (Matthew 25:23). Those who can be trusted to do the right thing in small matters can also be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to more important things (at least when compared to those who don’t do the right thing for less important matters). The master goes on to say that “to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away,” implying that as people start to see that they can trust you to properly handle certain things, you will be given more responsibility (Matthew 25:29). If you can’t use your gifts appropriately and keep up with your responsibilities, you lose other people’s trust, and your responsibilities (which are opportunities to use your gifts and contribute to something greater than yourself) will be taken away. This principle applies to most things in life, not just computer science and engineering skills.

It is important to note that the servant who was scolded did not intentionally do anything wrong. He tried his best with what he was given, and still managed to disappoint his master. Fear inhibited him from doing what he knew his master expected of him, and even though he thought he had taken the best course of action for the circumstances, he was still scolded and sentenced to “the outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” which sounds like a very unpleasant place. I think the lesson to be learned here is that we should not let fear prevent us from doing what we know is right, regardless of how others might respond to our choices. At the end of the day, if we have seriously thought through our decisions and how they would impact others, made the decision that we think would be best, and are able to explain/support the decision that was made, we should have little to fear about how others will react.

Reading 00

Hi there! Welcome to my blog for CSE 40175 Ethical and Professional Issues. My name is Chau-Nhi, and I am a senior majoring in Computer Science. I’m from Minnesota, but I currently live in Farley Hall, home of the Finest. In my free time, you’ll probably find me playing the guitar and singing in my room or trying to do something artsy with hand lettering. Other things I’m involved in on campus are World Hunger Coalition, tutoring at the Robinson Center, and liturgical life in Farley. Faith is very important to me, so I’m excited to be taking a class that fosters discussion around how values shape our work as engineers, and I hope to gain a better understanding of how my faith can inform my studies and work when some people believe these two should be kept separate. I chose to study computer science because of two reasons: (1) I didn’t like any other engineering disciplines, and (2) I thought it would be the best way for me to use my skills to help other people. In order to actually use my knowledge and skills in computer science to help people, I need to take the time to consider the ethical implications of what I’m doing, which can be tricky because any time humans are involved, things get a lot more complicated.

I hope this class will force me to think about and take a stand on some issues that I may have been avoiding because I don’t like conflict. I’m not very familiar with current ethical and moral issues that computer scientists and engineers are dealing with. Since I didn’t follow politics growing up, it would be interesting to discuss how politics and technology influence each other, and how other people/disciplines are affected by choices that computer scientists and engineers make.

Please keep in mind that these posts are my initial reaction to readings for this course, and that my opinions and stances may change after discussing these issues in class or with other people.