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<nettime> "The Moral Life of Geeks" (Was: Should Open SOurce Developers.
Kendall Grant Clark on Fri, 28 Feb 2003 22:14:06 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> "The Moral Life of Geeks" (Was: Should Open SOurce Developers...)

>>>>> "mail" == mail box <.> writes:

  mail> The idea is somehow absurd... but in the end it is open source,
  mail> which means that anybody should be allowed to use it... this is an
  mail> important regulative process for "official" power and helps keep
  mail> the balance...

I wrote about this general issue back in the fall of 2000 for
Monkeyfist.com, an article I'm including below.

The Moral Life of Geeks

by Kendall CLARK

Sunday, 10 September 2000

    Develop the fundamental theory, algorithms, and software for the
    design and analysis of robust, high-performance, team-based,
    multi-agent cooperative control systems operating in dynamic,
    uncertain, adversarial environments.

That sounds like fun, where do I apply? As it turns out, the Office of
Naval Research. It seems that most of the really interesting research --
especially in areas of intersection between computer software, biotech,
and nanotech -- is funded today either by the Pentagon System or
corporations. But what if you are, like most Monkeyfisters, a geek and a
leftist? What if you are a person inclined to do technical work but also
inclined to refuse to work for evil institutions, that is, institutions
that cause undeserved harm?

The basic dilemma lies between, on the one hand, not developing one's
innate and learned capacities, which can be a kind of harm to oneself and
to others, and, on the other, developing one's capacities by working for
evil institutions.

The dilemma has many forms. For example, most Monkeyfisters are or have
been involved in developing free software, often because of moral
considerations. And yet there is a moral tension: Richard Stallman wrote
the GPL in order to give software people a way to share their efforts
freely with neighbors. But one of the guiding principles of open source
software is that licenses cannot discriminate against fields of
endeavor. But what about fields of endeavor that are evil? What about
writing software, or doing research, that will, directly or indirectly, be
used to cause undeserved harm to others?

I owe myself and others a duty to develop my capacities; and one way I've
chosen to do that is to be involved in the development of a free software
infrastructure. But I also owe an obligation to refuse and resist
cooperation with evil institutions. Under all standard free software
licenses, anyone may use the fruits of my labor -- including evil
institutions like the Pentagon, the US Armed Services, defense contractors
like Boeing and United Technologies; online porn merchants; biotech
corporations like Monsanto; and agents of globalization like the World
Trade Organization. So in developing free software it appears that far
from resisting cooperation with evil institutions, I'm may be directly or
indirectly contributing to them.

I've only used free software development as a representative activity;
what I've said so far about it applies to many kinds of technical R&D. Why
shouldn't I discriminate against evil fields of endeavor? There are three
standard responses:

   1. Technology is amoral. The first response is that since technology is
      morally neutral, so as long as I don't put my work to evil ends, I'm
      not morally blameworthy.

   2. Redefine the dilemma. The second response says that just because I
      can write software or do research that may be used by evil
      institutions, I don't have to. I could be a waiter or a farmer

   3. Applied technology v. basic science. The third response
      distinguishes between basic research and applied technology; in
      doing so, it claims that, since it increases human knowledge and is
      only indirectly, if ever, applied, basic research is morally
      praiseworthy, or at least not prima facie morally blameworthy, even
      if evil institutions ultimately use it to achieve evil ends.

The first response is flawed. It's simply not the case that all technology
is necessarily amoral. Technology, like any other cultural artifact,
doesn't just fall from the sky. It's always already embedded in, and
inextricable from, social space, which is always already a political
space, which, in turn, is always already an ethically-contested space.

I take this lesson from the work of David Noble and Steven
Shapin. Technology, with very few exceptions, gets developed in our late
Western capitalist era because its development gets funded by governments
and corporations, often in partnership. Failing to take that social and
political context into account when evaluating technologies, and the
morality of one's participation in their development, is simply to fail to
take account of all the relevant facts. While some technologies -- for
example, computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW) -- can be used
equally well for good or evil ends, technology itself is not necessarily

The second response is coherent, but problematic if you believe, as I do,
that persons have a duty, to themselves and to some others, to develop
their innate and learned capacities as a necessary condition of human
flourishing. The second response is applicable in what we may call limit
situations in which the only choice one has is either developing one's
capacities in association with an evil institution or not developing them
directly, if at all. What proponents of the second response fail to
recognize is that limit situations are rare. In sum, then, the second
response is a useful and valid one, but only in some rare situations.

The third response claims, essentially, that whatever the moral status of
particular bits of applied technology, or engineering, basic research is
at least only second-order problematic. While I agree that we shouldn't
abandon all basic research, even when it's reasonable to assume that some
of it will be used to achieve evil ends, it's unclear whether most
technical people do basic research, or whether doing basic research funded
by evil institutions should be done at all. The modern research university
is obviously of crucial importance, but an ever-increasing majority of
research done in universities is funded by the Pentagon and
corporations. In short, that basic research is only second-order morally
problematic can at best be ameliorative, not dispositive, of the basic
dilemma. (And in the particular case of software geeks, most software
development is more like applied tech than basic research, i.e., more like
the development of, say, the Apache Web server than what Donald Knuth
does, and so the third response isn't very helpful to the geeks.)

So how should technical people respond to this dilemma? I suggest three
kinds of response, the first two of which are specific to the development
of free software, while the third is generally applicable.

First, we need to reinvigorate moral debate about free software (and, by
extension, about technology and intellectual property in general) by
talking not only in terms of freedom, which Richard Stallman has done
well, but also in terms of responsibility, that is, acknowledgment of
one's duty to avoid cooperating with institutions that are evil. One way
to do that is to talk about an Ethical Public License, at least as a
thought-experiment. What might such a license look like? Is it legally
possible to write binding software license that prohibits particular its
use within fields of endeavor or particular types of institution? What
kind of moral claims are involved in such a license? How far should one go
to prohibit one's work from being used to cause undeserved harm? Could the
resulting license still make a claim to be free software, that is, a tool
of extending personal freedom?

Second, and this applies primarily to those of us who are both leftists
and geeks, we need to challenge the wholly unreflective libertarianism of
free software, and Internet, culture. Most geeks, I suspect, would not
credit the dilemma I've described, if for no other reason than that most
geeks are habituated libertarians, who don't think about their technical
work in terms of social or institutional analysis.

Finally, we need, especially in America, to reassert democratic control
over the kinds of institution that fund technology development and basic
research, but particularly those that are ostensibly democratic:
government and universities. In that way we may be able to reassert
control over public corporations as well.

What good can come of reasserting democratic control? If governments,
universities, and corporations were under democratic control, they could
be harnessed to pursue ends that contribute to, rather than impede, human
flourishing. Under strong, reinvigorated democratic control, the moral
status of basic research becomes much clearer, since it becomes reasonable
to assume that the applications of that research will be for good, not for
harm. Democratic control of these institutions would make limit situations
exceedingly rare, since it would tend to promote the pursuit of good ends
over evil ones.

Technology has liberative potential, but only if it's controlled by
democratic structures and institutions. And given the sorry state of
American democracy at present, it's no wonder that geeks, engineers, and
scientists of good will daily face difficult moral dilemmas. The solution
to those dilemmas, and the key to harnessing technology for the good, is
the reassertion of democracy in the face of its slow, ongoing demise.

This is The Moral Life of Geeks <http://monkeyfist.com/articles/651>

 Copyright 1999-2002 The Monkeyfist Collective

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