Monday, December 19, 2016

“Towards a new hacker ethic”

I just read the transcript (and saw slide deck) of a great talk, Programming is Forgetting: Toward a New Hacker Ethic by Allison Parrish at the 2016 Open Hardware Summit.
The whole talk is worth watching/reading, but the part I liked best is Parrish’s reformulation of the “hacker ethic” laid out in Steven Levy’s book Hackers in the 1980s. Levy set out to chronicle the cultural history of hacking (the good kind, i.e. building and tinkering with computing and technology systems, as opposed to maliciously subverting them) and he claimed to summarize the “hacker ethic” in the following four points:
  • Access to computers should be unlimited and total
  • All information should be free
  • Mistrust authority; promote decentralization [of control and content]
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking [skills], not “bogus” criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position
The gist of Parrish’s talk is that while the above principles are noble, the anecdotes Levy recounts of hacker behavior are often inconsistent with the above points, including a noteworthy anecdote in which some hackers “exercised their ethic” in a way that dismissively interfered with the work of Margaret Hamilton, who would go on to invent the term “software engineering” and to be the lead architect of the guidance computer software for the Apollo missions that landed the first humans on the moon.

For me the best part of the talk was Parrish’s proposed reformulation of the “hacker ethic” in a way that takes the form of questions that creators of technological systems should ask themselves as they think about deploying those systems. I doubt I can improve on her phrasing, so I’ll quote the talk transcript directly:
“…my ethic instead takes the form of questions that every hacker should ask themselves while they’re making programs and machines. So here they are.
Instead of saying access to computers should be unlimited and total, we should ask “Who gets to use what I make? Who am I leaving out? How does what I make facilitate or hinder access?”
Instead of saying all information should be free, we could ask “What data am I using? Whose labor produced it and what biases and assumptions are built into it? Why choose this particular phenomenon for digitization or transcription? And what do the data leave out?” 
Instead of saying mistrust authority, promote decentralization, we should ask “What systems of authority am I enacting through what I make? What systems of support do I rely on? How does what I make support other people?” 
And instead of saying hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position, we should ask “What kind of community am I assuming? What community do I invite through what I make? How are my own personal values reflected in what I make?”
A few weeks ago a Medium post went viral in which developer Bill Sourour discussed “The code I’m still ashamed of”. At the direction of his manager, he had written code for a website that was posing as a general-information website where you could take a quiz to determine what prescription drugs were recommended for your particular symptoms and condition. In fact, though, the website was effectively an advertisement for a specific drug, and no matter what your responses to the quiz, the recommendation would always be the same—you needed this company’s drug. (A young woman later killed herself due to depression attributable in part to consuming the drug.) Business Insider reported that Sourour’s post had triggered a storm of “confessions” on Reddit from other engineers who were ashamed of having done similar things under duress, and includes some pointed comments from software thought leader “Uncle Bob” Martin such as “We are killing people.” He warns us that the Volkswagen emissions-cheating scandal was probably just the tip of the iceberg, and that even though in this case the CEO was ultimately held accountable (which doesn’t always happen), “it was software developers who wrote that code. It was us. Some programmers wrote cheating code. Do you think they knew? I think they probably knew.”

Uncle Bob goes on to lament that coding bootcamps rarely include any required material on software ethics, and I'm beginning to fear we don't do enough at Berkeley either. In my work as a college instructor, I do have to deal with breaches of academic integrity of various sorts, from straight-ahead plagiarism to students paying freelancers to do their homework to students presenting false documentation about medical emergencies to avoid taking an exam. Disturbingly often, when these students are confronted with evidence of their actions, their only remorse seems to be that they were caught, and I find myself wondering whether they are the software writers who will go on to insert “cheat code” into a future consumer product. We do have a required Engineering Ethics course and there is a software engineering ethics code endorsed by the Association for Computing Machinery, but I worry that our ethical training doesn't have sharp enough teeth. As Uncle Bob wrote, “We [software developers] rule the world, we just don’t know it yet.” We’d better start acting like it. Self-reflection questions like those proposed by Parrish would be a good place to start.

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