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Diversity, Education, Privilege, and Ethics in Technology

Linked by Paul Ciano on June 4, 2018

Antoine Beaupré:

The real solution to the lack of diversity in our communities not only comes from a change in culture, but also real investments in society at large. The mega-corporations subsidizing events like KubeCon make sure they get a lot of good press from those diversity programs. However, the money they spend on those is nothing compared to tax evasion in their home states. As an example, Amazon recently put 7000 jobs on hold because of a tax the city of Seattle wanted to impose on corporations to help the homeless population. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple all evade taxes like gangsters. This is important because society changes partly through education, and that costs money.

Here at KubeCon, Mark Zuckerberg’s mantra of “move fast and break things” is everywhere. We call it “velocity”: where you are going does not matter as much as how fast you’re going there. At one of the many keynotes, Abby Kearns from the Cloud Foundry Foundation boasted at how Home Depot, in trying to sell more hammers than Amazon, is now deploying code to production multiple times a day. I am still unclear as to whether this made Home Depot actually sell more hammers, or if it’s something that we should even care about in the first place.

We’re solving a problem that wasn’t there in some new absurd faith that code deployments will naturally make people happier, by making sure Home Depot sells more hammers. And that’s after telling us that Cloud Foundry helped the USAF save $600M by moving their databases to the cloud. No one seems bothered by the idea that the most powerful military in existence would move state secrets into a private cloud, out of the control of any government. It’s the name of the game, at KubeCon.

The goal of the toaster experiment is also to show how fragile our civilization has become precisely because we depend on layers upon layers of parts. In this totalitarian view of the world, people are also “reusable” or, in that case “disposable components”. Not just the white dudes in California, but also workers outsourced out of the USA decades ago; it depends on precious metals and the miners of Africa, the specialized labour of the factories and intricate knowledge of the factory workers in Asia, and the flooded forests of the first nations powering this terrifying surveillance machine.

Staying in an hotel room for a week, all expenses paid, certainly puts things in perspectives. Rarely have I felt more privileged in my entire life: someone else makes my food, makes my bed, and cleans up the toilet magically when I’m gone. For me, this is extraordinary, but for many people at KubeCon, it’s routine: traveling is part of the rock star agenda of this community. People get used to being served, both directly in their day to day lives, but also through the complex supply chain of the modern technology that is destroying the planet.

…the system has become so complex that we don’t even know how we fail when we do. Even those in the highest positions of power seem unable to protect themselves; politics seem to have become a game of Russian roulette: we cock the bot, roll the secret algorithm, and see what dictator will shoot out.

To make such fleeting, tongue-in-cheek references to a totalitarian civilization is not harmless: it makes more acceptable the notion that AI domination is inescapable and that resistance truly is futile, the ultimate neo-colonial scheme.

The “hackers” of our age are building this machine with conscious knowledge of the social and ethical implications of their work. At best, people admit to not knowing what they really are. In the worse case scenario, the AI apocalypse will bring massive unemployment and a collapse of industrial civilization, to which Silicon Valley executives are responding by buying bunkers to survive the eventual roaming gangs of revolted (and now armed) teachers and young students coming for revenge.

Only the most privileged people in society could imagine such a scenario and actually opt out of society as a whole. Even the robber barons of the 20th century knew they couldn’t survive the coming revolution: Andrew Carnegie built libraries after creating the steel empire that drove much of US industrialization near the end of the century and John D. Rockefeller subsidized education, research and science. This is not because they were humanists: you do not become an oil tycoon by tending to the poor. Rockefeller said that “the growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest,” a social Darwinist approach he gladly applied to society as a whole.

But the 70’s rebel beat offspring, the children of the cult of Job, do not seem to have the depth of analysis to understand what’s coming for them. They want to “hack the system” not for everyone, but for themselves. Early on, we have learned to be selfish and self-driven: repressed as nerds and rejected in the schools, we swore vengeance on the bullies of the world, and boy are we getting our revenge. The bullied have become the bullies, and it’s not small boys in schools we’re bullying, it is entire states, with which companies are now negotiating as equals.

…the real con is hacking power and political control away from traditional institutions, seen as too slow-moving to really accomplish the “change” that is “needed.” We are creating an inextricable technocracy that no one will understand, not even us “experts.” Instead of serving the people, the machine is at the mercy of markets and powerful oligarchs.

My hope is that the people that need to hear this will take it the right way, but I somehow doubt it. With chance, it might just become irrelevant and everything will fix itself, but somehow I fear things will get worse before they get better.

Paul Ciano

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