Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Ethics in Tech and the Humanities Classroom

I don't know if you saw this piece in the Guardian the other day, about how part of the problem with modern technology and its role in our lives is that people in the tech industry tend to study computer science and math and not the humanities.

Of course it's a subject close to my heart, and I've always said that most of the world's difficult problems are social and political problems, not technology problems. But I was interested to see a certain number of apt comments challenging the idea that classes in the humanities or ethics would make people more ethical, more motivated to do the right thing, or even more perceptive about what the right thing is.

In certain ways, I think these comments are spot-on. For one thing, it's always strange when universities require cheating students to take an ethics course. In ethics class, we study ethical theories, debates in ethics, and how different ethical perspectives lead to different conclusions about practical issues. Not only doesn't that make you a better person, it might have the opposite effect, insofar as you might learn about all this debate and disagreement and think to yourself: "If the experts can't even agree, maybe this is all BS. Should I just do whatever I want?"

Furthermore, I agreed with this perceptive comment in the Guardian from a "tech insider." This commenter drew on experience working with kids to say that "the thing that makes the biggest difference in knocking adolescent heads is exposing kids to people that aren't like them." He said that if you take a group of rich white guys from rich families, and you put them in a room together to study Plato, that won't have much effect in terms of making them care about negative consequences of their actions for people "on the other side of the screen." But actually interacting with people from different backgrounds could make a difference.

This commenter also pointed out, correctly in my opinion, that if you really want change, you can't rely on the tech industry to change itself, through people having "ethics." In a world of venture capital and people relying on tech jobs for their income and well-being, the incentives are all on the other side. You need political will and structural change if you want things to be different. Regular readers will understand why this point resonates with me.

Indeed, another commenter replied to the first to express indignation at the way "elites" act like learning the truth about life and love requires learning Greek  and traveling to India, and then, only if you come back with the "right" opinions. Whatever the reality, if this is the perception, the humanities are in trouble.

But no one will be surprised to hear that I think that there are also many things to say about the importance of studying the humanities and how this study is relevant to issues, especially where there are societal consequences to be considered. There are lots of areas, but one of them is learning about how complicated things are, and thus how unlikely it is that you can find and use simple general statements about social facts to understand the world.

For example, when you first encounter the idea that the thing to do is the thing that will bring about the best consequences, it might sound like simple common sense. But then you might learn in a philosophy class that applying this theory can lead to the conclusion that it's OK to kill disabled infants, and you might start wondering about whether there are other important human norms. Or you might start out thinking that society being based on free choice and individualism is just how societies work, but then you might take a history class and learn that ideas about individual autonomy emerged through a contingent set of forces. You might think that preventing deaths of innocents abroad is a good thing, but then you might learn in political science class about the complex effects of using weapons to kill people in other countries, even when your aims are good.

I'm occasionally appalled by the simple statements expressed by people in the tech industry. When Mark Zuckerberg says that integrity requires acting the same in all contexts, or that he dreams of a fundamental law of human behavior, that increased sharing will lead to increased tolerance and openness in society or that the solution is just cracking down on "bad stuff" ... well, those things seem wildly wrong to me.

Maybe being in a humanities or social science classroom -- not just reading certain texts, but also having back and forth, seeing conflicting opinions, hearing from people who have the opposite point of view -- would at least shake someone's confidence about these things? Lend a little epistemic humility?

Also, if that first Guardian commenter is right when they say it's not individual responsibility but rather structural change that is needed, then it's not so much that "tech elites" need humanistic education as that the rest of us do.

If you want to understand why people spread misinformation online, why people seek out anti-vaccine evidence, and why people doubt climate change, you're going to get much further in a sociology and social epistemology class than anywhere else. That's not about "ethics," exactly, but it is about understanding why people do the things that they do -- not in the "fundamental law of human behavior" kind of way, but in the actual "why do people do the things that they do" kind of way. 

1 comment:

Robert GT said...

Timely for me, since Knowledge Integration just released a Science & Technology studies option. The link is here: https://uwaterloo.ca/knowledge-integration/current-undergraduates/options-minors-and-specializations/science-technology-society-specialization

My comments, 2/3 of which pertain to the broader discussion you started in your post:

1. Can taking more INTEG electives count towards the 3 required from across campus? It's not clear, and there are good arguments either way. I'd suggest allowing a maximum of 1 extra INTEG course to count.

2. I think there are a couple of highly relevant departments that have been left off the list of electives, in particular some STS-related topics in some applied sciences. While certainly not all should qualify, SCI, SYDE, CS, and EARTH all have upper-level courses that explore some part of the interaction between that discipline and society.

3. More broadly, I'd hope that this option would work towards greater depth and/or interactional expertise in a technical area. While I would agree that that's not the point of an STS option, the distance between practicioners of technical fields and those who study them is often too wide. I think KI is really well placed to bridge that gap, and that careful choices in designing this option could help a lot.