Technology at the crossroads

I’m fascinated by the Volkswagen emissions scandal. Reading the indictment of James Liang, the engineer responsible for VW’s diesel engines in the US, is both revelatory and infuriating. How could the many engineers who worked on the defeat device stomach what they were doing? Volkswagen’s engineers deliberately lied to regulators and attempted to hide the evidence of what they had done.

What went wrong?

I could ask the same question about Twitter. Ashley Nelson-Hornstein rightfully called out Twitter for their inaction on harassment during her Strange Loop keynote, Humanities x Technology. Here there are no regulators to mislead, no laws that would require Twitter to clean up the constant stream of pollution that their product facilitates. The only rules here are the ones we make for ourselves.

I think these two failures are of the same nature. It’s easy to see the desperation in the Volkswagen engineers begging for "creativity" in dealing with regulators, and so I wonder why those engineers decided to keep going. Why didn’t they quit? Why didn’t they tell the world about what was going on here? But I wonder these things about the people at Twitter too. Nobody’s going to put you in jail for what you haven’t done to address the harassment problem, but doesn’t that make it all the easier to walk away if the company doesn’t ever address it?

In both cases, I want to ask: is this really what you wanted to be doing with your life? Your time? Your agency?

It’s not always easy to answer these questions. Amie Stepanovich’s keynote about government hacking again made me question a decision I made when I was between my last job and my current business. On the advice of the affected product vendor, I sold vulnerabilities - not on the black market, but to a company well known in the security industry which supposedly uses these vulnerabilities to develop firewall products. It worked: the vendor promptly fixed the issues I sold, which is more than I can say for the issues I reported directly. I never quite understood how the company I sold to would use the information though: it seemed to me to be extraordinarily difficult to develop a filter for the issue in question, and yet very easy to use for "drive-by" exploitation. A few years later, the Snowden revelations made me question whether there was more going on here than I originally understood. Did the information I sold end up being used for government hacking? I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure, but I wouldn’t do it again if I had the choice.

I titled this "technology at the crossroads", but it’s people who come to the crossroads, not the tools we make. We can find ourselves at the crossroads at any time, and if we don’t remember why we’re doing what we’re doing, and for whom, can we leave having made the right decision?

One thing I try to do is to surround myself with people who are working on things with purpose. When I become disconnected from that community, it’s easy for my perspective to drift; when I spend time amongst others who are working towards good, I can find myself again. I can think of so many smart people who are developing really interesting technologies in the service of ends that I consider questionable. One of the great things about Strange Loop is being able to spend time in the company of people like my friend Nikko Patten, whose company SparkFund offers financing that lets organizations install more energy-efficient lighting without having the capital for the up-front cost. On the surface this sounds like a bunch of money being moved around, but in human terms, it means that schools can spend more of their money on teachers, not infrastructure costs; small farms can grow more efficiently; and eventually this can make a dent in the baseline load that keeps fossil fuel electricity generation online. (I’ll confess to a bit of narrative envy here; it’s very easy for Nikko to see the people he’s helping, whereas it’s much harder for me thanks to the indirection of the retail channel.) They’re super-smart people working on cool technology, but that wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t being used for good.

Part of Ashley’s talk was the sticky note she keeps on her desk to remind her of the kinds of people she wants to think about when building products. It’s a good list to keep in mind, but as she pointed out, as soon as this list is internalized, it’ll be time for a new one. Our journey will always take us back to the crossroads sooner or later. Along the way we’ll discover new blind spots, and sometimes in retrospect we’ll find that we haven’t always made the right decisions. As long as we remain connected to communities of purpose - not just of technology - we can recognize where we’ve gone wrong, make amends where we can, and remind ourselves of where we want to go. I’m grateful to Alex Miller and all the other organizers to have that opportunity again this year, and I hope that community continues to grow and spread through all the new people who attended and will attend in the future. It truly is something special.