My Role

December 25, 2020

This is the first in a series of posts that addresses the ethical context of my work as I see it. I don't have any authority to describe ethics. This series is not meant to advance any global theory of how software systems ought to be constructed, or even any set of criteria that ought to be used to judge such a theory. Instead, I would like to make explicit some of the choices that I make consistently and the ethical context in which I understand those choices. My motivation is to tie specific behavioral and technological decisions to a stable and legible set of ethical claims which can be challenged and rebutted. These decisions should be understood as accountable to the underlying ethical claims-- challenges that succeed in rebutting those claims should imply the need for corresponding changes in the decisions.

The Claim: It's ok for me to be doing this

I[1] am working to build more humane social media systems. I use tools and ideas from many sources, but I'm not affiliated with any group or employer. I spent the past five years or so working in a series of software companies. I have significant privilege, including: the means to decide for myself how I use my time, and acceptance and validation in spaces where knowledge of computer systems is shared.

By doing the work that I do, I'm implicitly claiming that its acceptable for me--a person already privileged in those ways--to be the person doing it. In A Letter To My Nephew, James Baldwin describes the experience of white Americans in a sad and empathetic and generous way:

They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.

Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.

You don't be afraid. I said it was intended that you should perish, in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go beyond and behind the white man's definition, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention and by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word "integration" means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it.

I recognize in current affairs exactly what Baldwin describes when he says "those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality." I feel myself losing my grasp on reality as one pillar after another of the social order is demonstrated to be either a deliberate mechanism of oppression or fatally vulnerable to takeover by oppressive interests. The scale of the remediation required, and the unfathomability of the world that lies on the other side of it, is a powerful incentive to deny the premise of oppression using an appeal to consequences-- to say that oppression must be an illusion because of the scope of what must change if it were real[2]. Faced with the choice between the uncertainty of a leap of faith and enduring the cognitive dissonance of the current system while enjoying its material rewards, we have mainly chosen the latter.

Baldwin does not deny white people a place in remediating injustice. Further, he strongly implies that the internal logic of whiteness, and its expression in North American social structures, is an important theater in the struggle to remediate the effects of racism. Progress requires white people not to continually fade away from these conversations into privileged, intellectualized, and politically correct bubbles, where lack of movement on any front is justified by the performance of powerlessness in the face of an unfortunately-more-numerous racist Other. Instead, the yardstick by which to judge white participation against oppression is whether the systematic mechanisms of oppression for our benefit are publically identified, held accountable, and corrected.

This is the theory with which I justify my participation in the project to build more humane social media systems. Even though I don't have standing to make claims on behalf of marginalized people, I am able, when those claims are made, to use my technical skill, access to the means of production, and social position to validate them and suggest remediations. This work takes two forms. First, it includes my writing here, which is an attempt to accurately record a functional understanding of software system design, at least as it relates to human-scale social media systems. Even if my ideas prove wrong or ineffective, this record may help by recording my mistakes. Second, my work includes prototyping systems based on my ideas, using them myself, and inviting criticism that will make them better.

There's a concept used by the Internet Engineering Task Force to describe the pattern of progress in computer standards: "rough consensus and running code". Without affirming the legitimacy of claiming "consensus" in the context of a community from which many are disenfranchised, I want to focus on the role of "running code" in that formulation. Wikipedia notes that "There is some debate as to whether running code leads to rough consensus or vice versa." That is, the existence of an example system (even if flawed), helps to facilitate the conversation about the system and its context. This iterative process of building, discussing, and modifying is a pragmatic social technology for achieving results in the world. I claim that it is ethically acceptible for me to participate in this process, and doing so constitutes a useful, good-faith effort to remediate inequality.

  1. My name is Raphael. I am male, white, 34 years old. I live with my wife in Salem, MA. ↩︎

  2. We've had an extremely improbable opportunity to test America's vulnerability to the appeal to consequences in different contexts. We have failed at responding to an immediate catastrophe (the pandemic) with immediate consequences and fairly obvious-but-inconvenient solutions. We are currently invested in an extremely complex and largely unserious attempt to solve the climate crisis using lip-service. ↩︎