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Ethics in Silicon Valley

In the paper Owning Ethics: Corporate Logics, Silicon Valley, and the Institutionalization of Ethics by Jacob Metcalf, Emanuel Moss and Danah Boyd the authors investigate the role and pitfalls of ethics in big cooperate firms in Silicon Valley and how underlying logic in the industry influences how ethics is understood and executed.

According to the authors ethics in the tech industry is based on the underlying logic of meritocracy, technological solutionism, and market fundamentalism. Meritocracy is a form of government that argues that power should be given to those with the highest skills and qualifications. Technological solutionism trusts innovation and technological solutions to solve broad social problems and market fundamentalism reason that a free and unregulated market can solve social and economic problems.

They argue that ethics is seen by many tech workers as something that arises from imperfect products and is not understood in a social context as something that structures social life. For tech people the apparent solution to ethical problems is therefore technology in the form of improved products, not changes of fundamental structures in the organization or industry. Skilled tech workers have qualities and abilities to best solve technological problems and they therefore perceive themselves as the most qualified to solve ethical challenges in the industry. They use this understanding to dismiss critique from people who do not understand technical details, like ethical scholars and members of government.

This places ethics in the practices of tech workers, not in the social world they are building products for, and tech companies seek to materialize ethics in form of checklists, protocols, evaluating metrics and best practices to eliminate risks. Ethics owners have been hired to develop these ethical practices, but they are often limited to suggesting changes that does not negatively affect the bottom line of the company, since their advice otherwise might not be followed. To give the responsibility to knowledgeable tech worker and ethics owners can allow failures to be placed on individuals rather than institutions. As the authors points out, a tech workers’ understanding of broader social problems can at best be partial and their power and influence within a company limited.

The paper states that tech companies involve themselves in ethics to avoid increased external criticism and governmental regulation, but they are at the same time pressured by the board and investors to focus on profit. The lack of regulation might lead some companies to conduct unethical practices as long as they are profitable and small companies are limited by investors to put ethics in front and center. To big companies, ethics become something to prevent scandals with, as one of the interviewees in the paper put it: “ethics … never makes you money but ethics can save you a lot of money.”

Ethics are thus put in a context of saving money, avoiding scandals, and making the best product and is seen as something to implement, not something that challenges the way an organization is designed and essentially work. Since ethics is not perceived as a social phenomenon, something that structures society, it is at the risk of becoming merely a performance or procedure, not an enactment of responsible values. The authors worry that companies might learn to speak and perform ethics without allowing it to change fundamental structures in the industry:

“If ethics is simply absorbed within the logics of market fundamentalism, meritocracy, and technological solutionism, it is unlikely that the tech sector will be able to offer a meaningful response to the desire for a more just and values-driven tech ecosystem.”

Signe Agerskov is a member of the European Group on Blockchain Ethics (EGBE) and is researching blockchain ethics at the European Blockchain Center