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Towards an Ethical Web Development

Thinking about what it means for an industry to determine a moral standard of practice.

Since the beginning of this summer, with everything that’s descending upon us with Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter uprising, it feels like we are living through a moment of moral accounting. In Portland, antifa is in the street in running battles with secret police, exploited workers are speaking up about the realities of our treasured restaurant industry, business owners are shutting down and pulling a disappearing act instead of facing accountability for their behavior. This has me thinking about my industry, which we all know has massive problems around racism, techno-fascism, and robber-baron level exploitation. We’re still dealing with people who read Snow Crash and Neuromancer and think those books were descriptions of Utopias.

There are a lot of people doing hard work right now to address these issues in the industry, working to identify how we can — as businesses — move toward a more just system of working, how we need to avoid baking our prejudices in to the AIs we build, and how the physical underpinning of the internet is built on an exploitative and extractive logic of global capital. This is all good and necessary work. It makes me think though, about if there are distinctions between the craft and practice of web development and the business logic and drive the industry. The industry vs the practice - as in the technical skill of painting vs the economic system of patronage. Clearly they are related, and clearly our conception of painting has always been tied to the economic structures that make it a reality as a profession, but is there a way to think about an Ethical Web Development? It would be tied to running an ethical business, and necessarily need to be supporting by an ethical economic system, but how could we articulate what it would look like the perform the craft and practice of web development ethically? What would an antiracist and antifascist web development practice look like?s

Recently we were visiting my parents in Corvallis, and as it happens my moms partner is Michal Nelson - a moral philosopher who specializes in ecological and environmental ethics. So I asked him if there were any frameworks for determining if a given industry (his discipline focuses on forestry and resource management for example) was acting “ethically”. How does an industry set its own standard of ethical behavior? He explained that acting “ethically” is essentially just staying internally consistent to a set of values that you’ve articulated — and in this way being “ethical” or “sustainable” doesn’t inherently hold any value. Many people or entities agree on the importance of acting ethically, but their baseline for what the core concepts actually mean, what they are talking about when they mean “harm” for example can vary wildly.

An ethical framework is a tool to reduce the possibility space - to help determine what choices available should be taken rather than could be taken. It creates a heuristic for determining which actions will cultivate an environment that supports a set of desired values. Determining ethical considerations becomes a design problem — what values do we want to see in the world? What outcomes do we want and why? Who are we considering, who are we not considering? What are the edges and the limitations beyond which we decide not to concern ourselves?

There are many ethics available to work from, and conflating a single ethic with the entire range of possible ethics can be a problem. If we assume that a utilitarian, individualist ethic is the only possible ethic we can work with (cough cough economics cough cough) it will necessarily preclude a whole range of outcomes that just aren’t possible to arrive at from those starting conditions. Another ethic based on compassion, animism, and collectivism would start with wildly different axioms and naturally arrive at different outcomes. This debate and tension is at play today among the people who study and try and outline what a sustainable future of forest management is - it’s an ongoing conversation (argument?) between people who don’t share the same basic axioms around what they are trying to talk about.

Perhaps the core of any ethic is “harm reduction”. We can see this in the Hippocratic oath and the medical ethic — first do no harm. The issue is that “harm” is not a natural, discoverable property of the natural world. Harm is necessarily framed as a value judgment, the corollary to the idea of “good in the expanded field”. We can outline the structural requirements and definitions of harm, and use those value judgments to identify harm in the world, but it’s still a human judgement system being used to sort and order the world. The medical world to illustrate this, we can look at the contemporary prerogative of “informed consent”. We now define lack agency over medical decisions as a harm done to an individual. This has not always been the case.

This starts to get at the ecological connections between the craft and the business and web development - we can easily frame accessibility as a fundamental requirement of an ethical web development practice in that it reduces the harm of excluding individuals from our work. But we can arrive at that principle from the logic of many different ethics, some of which could be wildly contradictory. From a utilitarian, efficiency and profit maximizing ethic, creating accessible web apps is ethical because not doing so would be to leave money on the table. From a humanistic and compassionate ethic, it’s accessible because it fosters inclusion and equity. So we see accessibility and a clearly defined ethical practice, but that doesn’t mean that we all agree on why accessibility is ethical.

I think in order for us to define what we mean when we try and define how our industry can be ethical, we need to work through a few steps:

  1. What values do we want to encourage and foster in the environment?
  2. Where do we draw the distinction between things we are concerned with and things we are not?
  3. How do we determine who is effected by our ethic and who is not?
  4. How do we then define the rules for determine which actions we should take and which actions we should not take?

If, as an industry and as individuals, we can have these conversations then we can start to come to terms with what it means to work every day in a world where we are actively supporting and enriching the worlds first trillionaire. Is an ethical web development one where we must boycott AWS? How do we feel about data centers in general? What about ISPs, what about underwater cables?

Jaya Saxena’s recent piece in Eater clearly identifies the problems associated with acting ethically as an individual — or even an industry — while remaining a part of a society that systemically undermines that ethic through structural design.

Building an equitable restaurant, a place where all workers are paid fairly, have benefits, and can work in an anti-discriminatory environment, is going to take a near-undoing of the way most restaurants are run.

Saxena examines some current models for employee-owned and cooperative businesses, and privately owned business that actively choose equality and community over profit. She identifies that is a compromise in these enterprises, and sums up the system issues at hand by concussing that ”… when it comes to restaurants, it’s hard to change one thing unless you’re changing everything.”

There are systemic forces at work that prevent any individual, or even any small community from truly reaching a place of ethical behavior. This makes me think that there has to be a split between “acting ethically” and “being ethical”. We can all act ethically, working our way upstream against the system forces arrayed against us, but that’s no guarantee that we will, at the end of the day, be ethical.

The essay identifies one restaurant and farm that solves their ethical crisis by charing $195 per person per meal, and frames that as a choice that consumers get to make. This is striking. We live in a time of unprecedented efficiency, unbelievable abundance, and massive wealth but if a restaurant is called to truly account for its exploitation to charge its true price, it’s immediately untenable. This feels like it must be true across many industries – Uber would rather cease service in California than treat it’s drivers like employees. What would it take to truly understand what the network of costs, values, debts, and the real price of things?

Would an ethical web development be able to account for that cost and still be able to be a business in our society? During my early courses in fine art printmaking at University, I was taught that a blank sheet of paper had value on its own. Not only the price attached to it (steep, for nice paper) but also the work and craft that went in to making it. One had to be sure that the image we we’re impressing on the blank sheet of paper added value to it that than reduced it. Our work had to be more valuable than the paper, and if it wasn’t we didn’t make it.

Ingrid Burrington has written extensively about the physical realities of the internet, and what it means to turn the raw stuff of the earth into the objects we need to make computers. She’s even turned computers back into raw stuff. It’s hard to confront the reality of an open pit lithium mine and conclude that needs must for better batteries.

Can web development be ethical? Maybe not. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have an obligation to act ethically. If we can articulate the ethic we want to have in our industry, and stay internally consistent to those principles in an effort to manifest values we want in the world, maybe that’s enough. Or a start anyway.