Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.
Today’s high-tech workers are the envy of the workforce. They do a job that most love. Many get to work with reasonable independence, with no bosses looking over their shoulders. Rewards can be great; thousands and possibly tens of thousands have become millionaires. Many have become billionaires.
Yet recent years have seen signs of profound discontent. One of the most compelling is the Never Again pledge, signed following the election of Donald Trump by almost 3000 high tech workers at firms including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Signers pledged not to “participate in the creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin”, and to raise issues with management, protest, whistle blow, and if need be to resign in order to stand by their beliefs.
Since then, there have been increasing numbers of public protests by tech workers. Several have been directed at Google for its intended participation in building a state-censored search engine for China, and for its participation in Project Maven, developing AI technology for drones, a project that was dropped after nine months. Other protests have been directed at firms including Amazon, Microsoft, and Salesforce for causes ranging from working conditions at Amazon fulfillment centers, corporate contracts with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, concerns about applications of facial recognition software, and failures to be responsive to the need for corporations to reduce their energy footprints. Perhaps the most dramatic was the November, 2018, walkout by 20,000 Google employees to protest its handling of sexual harassment allegations and its treatment of women.
In an April, 2019 opinion article in the New York Times, a former Google research scientist described his moral stance as that of a conscientious objector. Is this a fair characterization?
The term is typically applied to a soldier who asserts the right to refuse to do military service because of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion. It is a complex issue, especially in cases in which individuals state that they are not opposed to serving in a war, but are opposed to serving in a particular war. Some countries honour the status of conscientious objectors, allowing them to do alternative service, but many countries do not.
The principle goes further than applications to the military. Many countries and regions allow doctors and other health care personnel to assert conscience clauses which permit them to not provide certain medical procedures for reasons of conscience or religion.
Physicists provide a more direct parallel to digital technology workers. After the first test of a fusion hydrogen bomb by the U.S. on November 1, 1952, several noted thinkers and scientists, including philosopher Bertrand Russell and physicists Albert Einstein and Joseph Rotblat, agitated to convince nuclear scientists to speak publicly about the dangers of an arms race in nuclear weapons. This led to a scientists’ conference on Science and Public Affairs held in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, Canada in July, 1957, and a series of meetings which continue to the present day. There were reasons that some physicists attended the first Pugwash — concerns about the use of nuclear weapons — and some did not go — a reluctance to politicize science, and a fear of being labeled Communists. Decisions about whether or not to participate illustrate the complexities in thinking about when and how to speak up and act in cases where scientists feel that their discipline is being misused and bringing dangers to the world.
Computer scientists are people. They have consciences, beliefs, ethical standards, and a sense of morality. Given the degree to which many of the dreams of computer science have become nightmares, representing threats to individuals or to our way of life, computer scientists must ask themselves if their work and their discipline is incompatible with their beliefs and their sense of what is right and good and what is not. In doing so, they will increasingly be compelled to stand behind their beliefs, even if it means putting their jobs in peril.
FOR THINKING AND DISCUSSION
Are there jobs that you could not ethically do? If such tasks were assigned to you, what steps would you take?