Ethics Only Matters for Software

At least, that’s what it seems like. Since I started at Olin in 2018 I’ve seen ethics mentioned more and more often on campus and in the world. I’ve chased after it but, as a “hardware person,” the conversation rarely reaches my domain. I attend ethics talks and everyone there is in software or data privacy or something along those lines. I hear about Public Interest Technology and get excited–I would like to apply my degree to good work that puts the public first, but then I learn that “Technology” actually means something very specific. I look at the classes that I hear are incorporating ethics into their curriculum, classes like ModSim, QEA, Machine Learning, and maybe SoftDes. All of them focus on… software. Sure, there are some diamonds in the hardware rough that are trying to start the conversations but a match in the peripheral does not light a path. 

It’s not like there aren’t any problems with hardware. In fact, most of the problems in tech are around hardware. Arguably, more people are adversely affected by the problems in hardware than software, and the unethical practices in the hardware industry have been around for much longer. The practices we see today are those that have been around for centuries. Colonialism, imperialism, and slavery are all deeply embedded in hardware. The semiconductor industry is a source of conflict in international politics between the US’s and China’s governments. The supply chains for the materials we use in our hardware involve unsafe work environments, poverty, and just general political and economic extortion. Capitalist practices exist everywhere. And while software suffers from similar problems, it also exists on the foundation of hardware. We have to address both. 

But why don’t we talk about the ethics around hardware? It could just be my social circle here at Olin but after a little bit of asking around, none of the “hardware people” I talked to could think of any classes they had taken that involved their major and touched on ethics in any meaningful way. I have two theories:

The first is that these problems don’t directly affect  us, so we don’t care. We don’t experience the poverty, extortion, and physical duress that takes place in hardware supply chains, manufacturing, and design. But the software problems, like data privacy and computer vision, do affect us. We experience them, so we talk about them. If this is the case, I would question if this is ethics or just looking out for yourself. We worry about the problems that come with the privileges we gain due to our convenient geographic locations and don’t question anything that would shake the foundation of that privilege. Yeah, we could make our supply chains ethical, but that would make things more expensive. Do you really want that? Yeah, I really want that. It’s not like it’s going to happen tomorrow, and because things will get more expensive the larger system will have to change. We saw this with the pandemic, change happened and the capitalist systems floundered. Let’s figure out how to do it purposefully, and in a way that doesn’t force small businesses and the employees to suffer. It’s tough, but if we don’t talk about it nothing is ever going to happen. How can we expect anyone to really treat us fairly, if we don’t hold them to it across the board? 

The second theory is that we choose to focus on software problems because these hardware problems have been around for so long that they are deeply entrenched in our culture and society. Software didn’t exist 100 years ago or 1000+ years ago, hardware did. Software is digitally oppressive in origin, hardware is tangibly. So why would we waste our time on hardware? It’s just the way things are. But let’s turn that on its head: because hardware problems have existed for so long, because they are so deeply embedded we need to talk about them. Yeah, we exist within the problematic system, but that doesn’t mean we have to be sheep to it. Talking about it, feeling bad about it, and being uncomfortable because of it is all progress, though it may not feel like it. Social change is the first domino, the rest will follow when it does but if we don’t talk about it, nothing will happen. 

Software is problematic, hardware is problematic, most things in the system we exist in are problematic. We were born into a shit-covered word, no one knows how to clean it up and all we do is perpetuate it and move it around. It sucks but all we can do is talk about it, brainstorm about it, and confront it. 

We can start by bringing it into every classroom. Do it today, ask the questions and bring up the problems. Talking about ethics doesn’t have to be hard–why can’t it be normal? I can’t think of a single topic discussed or taught at this school that doesn’t involve ethics. It’s not like dedicating the time to these subjects would cause the quality of our education to suffer. The only thing that would suffer is our willingness to perpetuate the shit. Adding ethics to our curriculum and discussions would make us more effective and more impactful both socially and technically: socially because we would be more conscious of the impact we make with our work and in our lives, and technically because understanding these ethical problems requires a deep understanding of the systems they exist in. You can’t understand them with a passing glance, you have to learn about how the system works to understand how it is broken. The only thing talking about it will do is force us to be actual changemakers instead of just passive creators. So let’s talk about it, let’s collaborate on how we can make the change we want to see in the world.

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