Engineers are told ethics isn't 'career-advancing' and we're all living with the consequences

When 'move fast and break human lives' becomes the new Silicon Valley mantra

By Aimee Pearcy , written on June 30, 2020

From The Big Tech Desk

Universities tell students that they have the power to change the world. But they don’t teach them to stop and think about whether they should change it. The most vulnerable are left to live with the consequences.

Last month I wrote about why Big Tech should end harmful contracts. Since then, many companies have taken steps towards this. But I can't help thinking that if we'd put more emphasis on 'don't be evil' from the very start, we might have been able to avoid some of this altogether. 

Teaching engineers to be ethical is difficult. Even at some of the most highly accredited universities, the extent of many ‘ethics’ modules is a boring slideshow that most students don’t even bother turning up for, followed by a quick essay that would make anyone's eyes glaze over. It’s a farcical box-ticking exercise that almost always just amounts to a complete waste of time for everyone involved. 

You can't force people to care. Even if you created the best ethics course in the world, many people still wouldn't turn up. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a requirement. Most medical students probably didn’t go to medical school just because they wanted to help people. But they don’t get a pass for failing their ethics class just because ‘they’re really great at anatomy’.

I suppose this is a natural consequence of viewing universities as factories for producing workers. Ethics isn’t considered ‘career-advancing’ because it’s not what hiring managers with business degrees are incentivized to look for on resumes. It doesn’t come up in interviews, so it won’t help students get a job that will contribute to employment statistics, so it’s not worth teaching. 

It’s quite a stretch to ask for computer science programs to teach students how to be ethical when many of these programs don’t even teach students how to be good engineers. But imagine what a different place the world could be if we encouraged people to think about what they were building instead of rewarding them for how fast they built it, or how efficient their code is. Imagine if managers judged candidates outside of their ability to sit at a desk and grind out answers to the same Leetcode problems over and over again.

If ethics were properly taught and followed by students, it would probably be hard to find a job. Job fairs are rammed with weapons manufacturers and big banks who lure in debt-laden students with promises of free branded tote bags and high salaries. Even for many of the brightest students, the actual job role doesn’t matter if it means they get to put a Big Tech company on their resume. 

It’s easy to ignore the consequences of your actions when you’re sitting in a cushy office with air conditioning and free coffee. Gig workers are just another statistic. It’s not your fault that you’re helping to create invasive surveillance to track Uyghurs in China or programming fighter jets that will be used to bomb children in Yemen. You’re just a minor cog in the big machine. You need this job to take care of your family. When your kids ask you what you actually do at work all day, you divert their attention. 

And if the pregnant woman sitting across from you gets laid off because you just found a way to automate her job, it’s her own fault for not being productive enough, right

There are some great tech ethics courses out there. Casey Fiesler has created a spreadsheet to track links to tech ethics syllabi that has almost 200 courses listed. But it’s still not enough. Ethics classes should be mandatory for every engineering program, everywhere in the world. And it shouldn’t just be taught in universities -- it needs to be a regular part of training for mid-career tech workers of all types.

Even the most well-thought-out ethics program won’t solve everything. There’s enough material to make tech ethics an entire course in itself. And ethics courses alone won’t solve all of our problems. To really make a difference, we need drastically increased government regulation. 

You won’t learn how to make a billion dollar exit in an ethics program. And you can’t force people to care about other people when they just want to “move fast and break things”. But they should at least have some awareness about what it is they’re breaking.