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Friday, December 13, 2019

The Ethical Dilemma at the Heart of Big Tech Companies

Emanuel Moss and Jacob Metcalf
Harvard Business Review
Originally posted 14 Nov 19

Here is an excerpt:

The central challenge ethics owners are grappling with is negotiating between external pressures to respond to ethical crises at the same time that they must be responsive to the internal logics of their companies and the industry. On the one hand, external criticisms push them toward challenging core business practices and priorities. On the other hand, the logics of Silicon Valley, and of business more generally, create pressures to establish or restore predictable processes and outcomes that still serve the bottom line.

We identified three distinct logics that characterize this tension between internal and external pressures:

Meritocracy: Although originally coined as a derisive term in satirical science fiction by British sociologist Michael Young, meritocracy infuses everything in Silicon Valley from hiring practices to policy positions, and retroactively justifies the industry’s power in our lives. As such, ethics is often framed with an eye toward smarter, better, and faster approaches, as if the problems of the tech industry can be addressed through those virtues. Given this, it is not surprising that many within the tech industry position themselves as the actors best suited to address ethical challenges, rather than less technically-inclined stakeholders, including elected officials and advocacy groups. In our interviews, this manifested in relying on engineers to use their personal judgement by “grappling with the hard questions on the ground,” trusting them to discern and to evaluate the ethical stakes of their own products. While there are some rigorous procedures that help designers scan for the consequences of their products, sitting in a room and “thinking hard” about the potential harms of a product in the real world is not the same as thoroughly understanding how someone (whose life is very different than a software engineer) might be affected by things like predictive policing or facial recognition technology, as obvious examples. Ethics owners find themselves being pulled between technical staff that assert generalized competence over many domains and their own knowledge that ethics is a specialized domain that requires deep contextual understanding.

The info is here.