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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.