The neveragain.tech pledge continues to gain traction (if you can call it that) and I continue to analyze why I find it so troubling. For my initial thoughts, see this blog post.
A code of ethics or a call to collective action?
It’s not clear what the pledge is supposed to be. Is it a code of ethics and and conduct for our profession, or is it a call to collective action? I think it’s trying to be both, and it’s doing both very poorly.
Our profession already has a code of ethics.
In terms of trying to be a code of ethics: our profession already has this and has for some time. In fact is has a few to choose from. There’s the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, the joint ACM/IEEE-CS Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, and the IEEE Code of Ethics. One of these are referenced by the pledge, but only way on down in the resources section and without context.
Whenever you eschew an existing standard, you ought to give a compelling reason why. Otherwise you give the impression of ignorance (not knowing about it in the first place) or egotism (doing something new so you can put your name on, h/t @JohnMetta).
I suspect a lot of us have never heard of any of the existing codes of ethics for our profession, or if we have it hasn’t been in any serious context of actually applying the code in our day to day work. If this is because so many of us are self-taught, or because these codes aren’t taught in computer science curricula, or some combinations there of, I don’t know. I am interested in finding out and in helping to educate my colleagues and put these codes into wider practice with commensurate accountability mechanisms.
If these existing codes are flawed and need revising, let’s work on that together. You can comment on the ACM’s revised draft now through 15 January, 2017. If you care about this stuff, go do that now. Don’t put it off.
In terms of serving as a code of ethics for our profession, the neveragain.tech pledge is significantly lacking. It is simultaneously uncomprehensive and overly prescriptive.
A poorly thought call to action.
In many ways, the pledge looks much more like call to collective action, especially given the part that commits signers to resigning their employment if they are forced to comply with behavior defined as misuse of data. This is a kind of direct action.
But in this it fails too, for any metric more significant than shallow performance. Where is the accountability, the support, the education, the building of trust required for effective collective action? Where is there any clue that the organizers of the pledge actually understand how to lead a collective action?
There are some glaring statements and omissions that make it clear to me they do not. First, the pledge requires people to quit their jobs rather than comply. Now, resigning might be the right thing for an individual to do based on their own sense of dignity or respect or emotional well-being. And, it might feel like a righteous and just action. But it isn’t necessarily the most effective action to take. For it to be effective many people would have to quit at once. And perhaps not even then. In their guide on Effective Strikes and Economic Actions, the IWW says “Workers can be far more effective when they take direct action while still on the job.”
It’s clear the organizers are overwhelmed and delighted by the volume of response to the pledge. However, it’s not clear to me they’ve given any real thought to the number of people required to partake in a collective action in order to make it effective and whether or not those numbers are achievable starting with this kind of online pledge.
How many does it take to be effective?
There’s no definitive participation rate at which strike-like actions are guaranteed to be effective. While we have a rich history of labor organizing upon which to draw, every direct action is different. What we do know is that whatever the circumstances, enough of the labor force needs to participate such that the target organization feels or fears significant, negative, long-term financial consequences.
Let’s say, for sake of this thought exercise, that the number is 20%. (Here is where I would love to hear from managers or executives about which percentage would cause you concern and make you change course.) According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 4 million people are employed as tech workers. This doesn’t include those who are self-employed, and it might also be excluding those who have other job classifications but happen to write software. Again, this is a thought exercise, not a scientific paper. The idea here is to get a rough idea of scope.
20% participation x 4 million tech workers = 800,000 signers to pledge
As I’m writing this, 1943 people have signed the pledge already.
1943 / 800,000 = 0.24% towards goal
What would it take to reach the goal of 800k? Let’s say another 8k folks hear about the pledge through word of mouth, are sold right away, and show up to sign the pledge. That would bring the total to 10k.
10k / 800k = 1.25% towards goal
Now what would it take to get those additional 790k signers? Each existing signer would need to convince 79 of their colleagues to sign.
Applying the 20% goal to individual companies looks something like this to reach 20%:
- Google (Alphabet): 13.9k
- IBM: 75.5k
- Facebook: 3.14k
- Oracle: 27.3k
I’m using these companies global workforce numbers, because that’s what is most readily available, but you get the idea.
I bring up these numbers not to shit on the efforts of the neveragain.tech pledge organizers. I bring them up because I continually see our community fail to coherently, meaningfully discuss and analyze our tactics for driving change. It’s not enough just to have enthusiasm. You also need to know what you’re doing and have a good plan!
(The above numbers assume that everyone who signs the pledge will also follow through on their commitment to take direct action in their workplace. Assuming 100% is highly optimistic.)
There is more at stake than a Muslim registry. And there has been for a long time.
I say this not to minimize the threat to Muslim Americans or Muslim refuges living in America. That threat is very great.
It is also great to women, Latinos, Blacks, queer folks, those who are trans and gender non-conforming, those who are neuroatypical, those living with differently-abled bodies, those who struggle with houselessness, and those who are poor. The scale and nature of likely harm to individuals with differing intersections of these identities will vary, of course. I list them here not to equate them, but to demonstrate the scope of probable harm to our fellow citizens (of America and of the world).
Moreover, these folks have already been subject to varying kinds of harm and oppression and for quite some time. This did not start with the election of Trump. Tech has always had an obligation to stand up for these folks and by and large it has done a very bad job. Just look at how many of your co-workers are not white, straight, cis, male, and abled-bodied.
Every conversation about diversity and inclusion you stood by and watched or played “devil’s advocate” in was a missed opportunity to stand up for injustice. Every time you did not take us seriously about Gamergate. Every time you let your “difficult” colleague (who was likely a women, or Black, or queer, etc.) stand alone and be ostracized for raising an issue about how something your company was doing would have negative effects.
Tech colleagues, you’ve had a lot of opportunities that you’ve just completely squandered. I personally, have very little confidence, you will suddenly start to do markedly better.
And my confidence is not raised when the mechanism by which you are promising to do better repeats the very same mistakes we as a community have been making all along.
Continuing the status quo.
In my earlier blog post, I mentioned that I can’t join a movement when I don’t know who its leaders are. It turns out that the organizers of the pledge aren’t anonymous. They are revealing themselves to the media and on Twitter and probably elsewhere. But this isn’t the same as transparency or accessibility.
The pledge itself gives no background on how it was created or by whom. One should not have to dig for this information. It should be available via the pledge itself or no more than a link away.
Obfuscating leadership and process doesn’t promote individual responsibility nor does it make an effort more inclusive. All it does is obscure the context and motivation conferred by the project and make leadership less accountable to participants.
In tech, we have a long history of imposing our solutions on those who are marginalized, without their input or consent. We compound this error by ignoring or dismissing feedback when given.
Because the organizers have chosen to obscure who they are and by what process they created this pledge, I can only assume this same pattern is true. This is all the more true when at least one of the organizers is has a history of being hostile towards others’ religious practices and of ignoring the feedback from the people of color in communities they steward.
What I do see is a lot of (white) people on Twitter defending the pledge and Black folks saying it’s performative, shallow, and not helpful and not being listened to. Go see for yourself.
Not every effort deserves merit.
In my earlier blog post, I countered the idea that the pledge is the least folks can do. I want to expand on that by saying it might actually be quite counterproductive to support this thing.
It can hurt and does hurt to give attention to ill-conceived efforts. Attention is a finite resource. Giving our attention to poorly conceived or implemented efforts means there is less to give to ones that are better designed and better serving of their communities. Positive attention often brings benefits of all kinds: social and financial capital, credibility, etc. Folks with greater privilege, like white folks, receive more than their fair share of these benefits for work of lesser quality. And once they do, their projects and methods are remembered as good examples. And thus the cycle of mediocrity reinforces itself.
This is dangerous and counter-productive. It inhibits our ability to learn and grow. It reinforces the status quo and is antithetical to building solidarity.
Right action is way more complicated than you think.
Something else implied by this pledge is that there will be definitive moments where you know you are being asked to do something wrong and you will have a clear choice to comply or to walkaway.
In my experience, the actual situations we end up facing are nothing like this. They are complex and confusing and how best to act is quite often not clear. It takes continual, stumbling practice and a trusted network of advisors to gain enough experience to skillfully embody the ethical action we commit to.
And, for the most part, steps towards wrong action are gradual and indirect. I’ll illustrate this with a story.
Once upon a time, at my old job, I was on a call with the marketing team. We were discussing a project aimed at raising awareness about the importance of the open web. I noticed that the team, who was solely responsible for sourcing content for this project, was all men. I asked about the plan for including some women on the team. The response was deafening silence and the energy completely drained from the “room.” After some moments, someone responded with some kind of non-answer so empty I don’t recall now. The call continued and then concluded.
Sometime later, this same project published a pro-gamergate piece. All hell broke loose. Leadership had to deal with the ensuing PR mess. The project lead left the organization. We lost yet more credibility with our community.
Now, I’m not saying that having a woman on the team would have prevented the selection and publishing of a pro-gamergate piece. But I think it would have lessened its likelihood.
More importantly, the team’s and leadership’s failure to respond to the diversity issue I raised is directly related to the giant misstep it look later in publishing that gamergate article. No one was asked on that call to find and publish a pro-gamergate piece. They weren’t even asked to stay silent about the topic I raised; they simply did so because that was the prevailing culture. And in doing so, they took a small step towards creating the conditions for that later bad action to occur.
The lesson here? Start developing your senses now. Be on the look out for repercussions five, ten, twenty steps down the line. Speak up for all the little things because they lead to big things. Listen to your “difficult” colleagues when they raise issues even if you don’t quite understand where they are coming from. Use your privilege to assert publicly that what your colleague is saying is important and needs to be addressed. Start spending your social capital. Don’t wait for a rainy day, it is already upon us.
Some things you can do.
There are things you can do that require a lot more work than signing a pledge, but will be much more meaningful and impactful. Starting with the most specific and moving to the most general:
Read everything you can about labor organizing. If you’re curious about strike actions in particular, start here. Haymarket Books has a good collection of books about the labor movement and is having a 50% sale. While you’re ordering books from Haymarket, you might as well also get some on black politics and feminism. Read everything you can on IWW’s website. Then join if you are eligible. Figure out how to apply what you are learning in your workplace and in your community. A general strike is being planned for inauguration day. Learn about it and figure out if it makes sense for you to participate and how.
Commit publicly to abiding by one of the established codes of ethics for our industry. If you can’t decide, use ACM’s. Write a blog post saying that you’re committing to it and why. Tweet about it referencing neveragain.tech so folks following along know there is another option. Ask your colleagues to commit publicly as well. Encourage them if they hesitate. Start brining up the code of ethics in your daily work. You can do this by asking questions in your team meetings such as, “How does feature X abide or not abide with the code of ethics we’ve agreed to uphold?” Do this for processes that are already in place as well as new ones you are asked to create. Do this until it feels natural and then keep doing it. Hold your colleagues accountable, in whatever mechanism makes most sense, if you see them doing something contrary to the code. Likewise, support them if they seem to be struggling to uphold the code or being pressured to ignore it. Share your experiences doing all of these things, via which ever channels make most sense.
Find ways to materially and emotionally support the existing efforts of those who are most marginalized and at greatest risk. Support these efforts publicly, when it makes sense. Ask others to support these efforts. Listen deeply and learn from the folks leading these efforts without burdening them or colonizing their spaces.
Look for ways to build and support community where you live and to help meet the needs of those living closest to you. Pay attention to your neighborhood. Be a meaningful, respectful part of it.
Find ways to do the hard work of changing yourself. Prepare to give up things you have long taken for granted.
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