Don’t Be Evil: Engineering Culture, Infrastructure, and Politics

I’m going to over-quote from this great piece on engineering culture and tech ethics.

We certainly do “try to do politics by changing infrastructure.” For good, and for bad.

Engineering culture is about making the product. If you make the product work, that’s all you’ve got to do to fulfill the ethical warrant of your profession. The ethics of engineering are an ethics of: Does it work? If you make something that works, you’ve done the ethical thing. It’s up to other people to figure out the social mission for your object. It’s like the famous line from the Tom Lehrer song: “‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”

Engineers try to do politics by changing infrastructure.

That’s what they do. They tweak infrastructure. It’s a little bit like an ancient Roman trying to shape public debate by reconfiguring the Forum. “We’ll have seven new entrances instead of six, and the debate will change.”

The engineering world doesn’t have a conception of how to intervene in debate that isn’t infrastructural.

Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints on another. How are those constraints built? What are its effects on political life?

At Burning Man, what you’re rehearsing is project-based collaborative labor. Engineers flowing in from the Valley are literally acting out the social structures on which Valley engineering depends. But they can do something at Burning Man that they can’t do in the Valley: they can own the project. They can experience total “flow” with a team of their own choosing. In the desert, in weirdly perfect conditions, they can do what the firm promises them but can’t quite deliver.

In order to make these heroes, however, they have to cut them off from the context that produced them. They can’t tell a context story. They can’t tell a structure story. They have to tell a hero story. Suddenly the heroes themselves look like solo actors who pushed away the world to become the libertarian ideal of an Ayn Rand novel. So I think it’s a collaboration between actually existing tech leaders and the press around a myth.

One of the legacies of the counterculture, particularly on the left, is the idea that expression is action. This idea has haunted those of us on the left for a long time.

But one of the reasons that the Tea Party came to power was that they organized—they built institutions. So the challenge for those of us who want a different world is not to simply trust that the expressive variety that the internet permits is the key to freedom. Rather, we need to seek a kind of freedom that involves people not like us, that builds institutions that support people not like us—not just ones that help gratify our desires to find new partners or build better micro-worlds.

Source: Don’t Be Evil

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