The Moral Values of a Hammer

Sept 17, 2018

The causes that drove the participants of the women's liberation movement to maintain the structurelessness is eluding to the reason why the tech industry is trying to present itself as amoral & apolitical. The analysis of the cause and the shortcomings of the way that the community / organization of the women's liberation movement, illustrated in The Tyranny of Structurelessness, can almost be directly matched with the community of programmers / engineers in the tech industry is forming.

The question that seems to repeatedly come up in the community of more self-minded programmers, engineers and critiques is the question of whether the there is a moral value in the tool itself. Can technology be evil? Even within the first 2 weeks of ITP, this question seemed to have come up at least 3 times under different contexts. To this question, one of my classmates in Introduction to Physical Computing class has used the hammer as an anology to describe her thought.

"A hammer is a tool. You can use a hammer to build a house, or you can use a hammer to kill someone."

The tool itself is not capable of embodying a moral value. It is the person / community / institution that is using the tool that uses it as a medium to carry a specific value. This is the point that my classmate was trying to illustrate with the hammer analogy. Does this mean that if we enforce a set of rules about the use of a tool / technology, can we successfully eradicate immoral or harmful "misuse" of tools? Will tech finally be "harmless"?

We also need to think about the fact that the tool itself is also created by humans - humans with different values. As Taeyoon Choi says in his Medium article, we need to keep in mind that when people are talking about software, they are talking about the values, biases, visions and prejudices embedded in the software as well.

In the context of open source projects, this is where the importance of having a code of conduct and contributing guidelines comes in. Even if the two documents may not start out to be perfect / cohesive / inclusive, as long as there is a space open for further discussion, it fosters an environment in which differences become negotiable. The Art of Humanizing Pull Request article provide a good structure for a code of conduct. As this article was the first of the readings for the week that I read, the immediate thought was, "why is there a need to write this all out? Aren't these all common sense?" But after reading the rest of the four articles, I had a realization that maybe we just need to be constantly reminded of the fact that these seemingly "common sense" rules cannot be taken for granted.

The concerns raised by Fred Turner about the presented neutrality of tech in big industries such as Facebook seem to be a on a different line of thought. Open source communities and projects are intended to be OPEN. Like the way that the Processing states itself to be a FLOSS, it is a community intentionally and consciously striving to remain open and transparent. However, it is not the intention of institutions like Facebook to be open. The workings and the system of Facebook is hidden inside of a black box, not accessible to the outsiders of the community. The fact that its product has billions of users adds to the complication as there will always be a conflict between what the users want from the developers of the tool / platform and what the institution wants to do to achieve their own intentions and goals.

It is an undeniable truth that big tech companies such as Facebook shape what the general public thinks about the tech industry. Though these big institutions would like to maintain the perception that the technology itself is neutral, it really isn't. How could it be? A software is an embodiment of various values both consciously and unconsciously injected by its developers. This is more the reason for the rest of us to be persistent in attempts set friendly environments of negotiations of the differences and values that come into play THROUGHOUT the whole process of development of technology / tools.