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.

Cool or Good

A favorite pastime for me is to lay on the bare paint-chipped wood of my mom’s back porch and gaze up into the sky. When I stare at birds, planes and clouds as they breeze by, I can’t help but be fascinated by the way they move. And a lot of people feel similarly, which is why a fundamental motivation behind aerospace is that we can unlock such freeing and fascinating methods of movement with our minds. Other things in the pro column are the potential benefits like connecting the world, discovering new technologies, and a bunch of other cool things. But let’s emphasize that these are all cool things, not inherently good things, a distinction that I don’t think is made often enough. And this brings us to the key problem with aerospace: it’s too cool.

Aerospace is so cool that people are willing to ignore the con column for the sake of the pro column, and that makes it both cool and dangerous. We talk about these pleasant sounding pros like they are the main driving force, but in reality the main driving force is to continue consolidating power. The biggest indicator of this is the distribution of aerospace technology around the world. Looking around, we see the same nations that have been gaining influence through imperialism boasting the most success in aerospace and using that success to further their imperialist reach, which is riddled with violence and conflict.  And the nations on the other side of this reach are coincidentally the ones that benefit the least from the technological developments we, as engineers, make in aerospace.

So, if we continue to pretend the biggest pro for aerospace today isn’t the military power it enables but instead the great solutions aerospace could offer humanity, we must at least accept that the only people that will be experiencing the benefit of those solutions are the ones that live in privileged and comfortable countries. Two prime examples are the internet and GPS, two technologies that are born from innovation within the aerospace industry. 

Internet and GPS are incredibly convenient technologies that have made information available to millions almost instantly. I use the internet almost hourly, GPS daily, and both have become a cornerstone of humanity’s technological developments. But does the benefit we have from this small subsection of aerospace really offset all of the oppression that aerospace as an industry has contributed to over the past 80 years? I say no, based solely on the fact that many more people have been hurt or inconvenienced by aerospace, as an extension of the military-industrial complex that drives it, than those that have benefited from the internet and GPS. The internet and GPS are luxuries that can be acquired through a paywall, how can a luxury offset all the oppression?    

And what does it look like to offset this oppression? What’s the conversion rate from civilians killed to Google searches and directions to the nearest open McDonalds? I know that these technologies contribute much more than the mundane, but even considering all of the research and discoveries that the internet enables, how can we begin to quantify offset? Especially when it comes to environmental impact, a field that we could probably quantify if we put time and resources into learning how, or lives lost, where each is invaluable.

So while I stalk the birds as they fly above and jump from perch to perch, I quickly become overwhelmed trying to understand and think about aerospace’s role as a tool for humanity. There have certainly been an unignorable amount of lives lost and oppression due to the aerospace industry that continues even today. And while I agree there is a lot of potential, does that excuse the unignorable? It’s a lot to think about, and I wish that my experience in the classroom helped me think about this stuff but there are only a handful of classes offered that bother to touch on this for at least one class session. Why don’t professors teach us how to think about this stuff? I can count on one hand the number of class sessions I’ve had that covered these critical topics, and my schedule has not allowed me to take either of the two MatSci classes that critically discuss systemic oppression in our engineering supply chains. 

We need to have these conversations and introduce frameworks to think about these real and pervasive problems. As an ECE student, why is there no required class that teaches me about the impact of electrical engineering? That teaches about where our rare earth metals and other materials come from, and whose hands mine them from the ground, and how we contribute to that system. Is it not critical to understand how dirty your PCBs and components are if you are going to try to make something good out of them? This is a specific example, but one exists for every major and every class, regardless of how technical the subject is. If we don’t incorporate these crucial conversations into the classroom, then are we problem solvers or just consumers?

Swing and a Miss

How many times must you be spun before you completely lose track of the piñata? It’s fun to watch, but foolishness truly is swinging at nothing and convincing yourself you’re close to the target. For me, my target at the end of the day is change and I worry that this whole engineering thing is a big swing at nothing. 

Now this is a bit of an under-exaggeration. Just like societal change is a much larger target than a piñata, engineering is much more consequential than missing a swing. Engineering is a primary driver of negativity in the world. Its outputs are used for violence, consumerism, and to drive an already drastic socio-economic gap in our community. Even most of the “helpful” technologies such as electric vehicles and medical devices aren’t nearly as helpful as they claim to be. 

The reason this is true is also the reason why this doesn’t have to be the case. Engineering today is driven by the oppression of the unseen yet critically important majority of humans. How could engineering be a tool for positive change if a sheer 99% of applications for engineering today are to create a more favorable position for the oppressors? For instance, I spent the past summer in the medical device industry, everyday I felt the whiff of a missed swing against my cheek. 

It was a problem for me that the primary end-user of a lot of the products in the company’s portfolio was the same group that owned the company, which was the same group that filled most of the engineering jobs. And the groups that benefited the least from the medical devices out there were the ones doing the cleaning and in general holding the most underpaid positions. Regardless of the intent to “save lives,” you can’t deny that there is an unbalanced distribution of lives saved in the population which says something for the unequal perceived value of our lives by our community. 

On the input end of things, while this company’s public position involved nice-sounding words like diversity and sustainability, on the ground floor neither were visible with the naked eye. It didn’t stop employees from explaining why they believe in white supremacy and when asking about sustainability to upper management, they had no clue if there was anything more actionable about the company’s practices than them asking manufacturers and vendors if they were sustainable. At all points there is a lot of energy directed into a swing in the wrong direction and with each failed, unrestrained swing discombobulation compounds, gaps widen and people are harmed. 

But this doesn’t need to be the case. We live in a world driven by a very small percentage of the population. As engineers, we have the largest impact on what the output of engineering is, and so, if the output of engineering is widely negative, then that is on our shoulders. 

To take a moment to call out a soon-to-be old lover of mine. Electrical Engineering is a huge and very significant part of this equation. From the beginning of the supply chain to when it ends up in a landfill, the outputs of electrical engineering only perpetuate an unsustainable culture that has been built on the backs of non-white and low-income people. There is more hope in my eyes for organic electronics, but our current and silicon-based technology gets to us, the electrical engineers, filthy with oppression. How can we balance that out? I am not convinced we can turn these filthy components and supplies into a technology that counteracts and supersedes that hurt. And our intentions do not change that hurt.

Our responsibility as engineers does not end with intent, but with impact. We have to accept that responsibility and in doing so decide whether we will continue peddling oppression or whether we will aim towards brighter horizons. Most swings so far have been misses, but if we focus more on the end goal we can definitely start hitting the target.