A Hippocratic oath for Internet technology

The mighty @ton has pointed me in the direction of something called the Tech Pledge. it seems to be an offshoot of the Tech Festival 2019 in Copenhagen – @nadia was there in representation of Edgeryders. The Tech Festival is itself an offshoot of a 2000s event called Reboot, which had an idealistic, early Internet culture. I attended it myself back in the day.

The idea is simple and elegant: if your job includes significant risks to human life, integrity and dignity, take an oath of letting yourself be guided by a solid ethics. It has worked for medicine for thousands of years, why cannot it work for technology now?

The original Hippocratic oath is, of course, a pre-capitalist institution: a fossile, if you will. The creators of the Tech Pledge are clearly aware of it, because the pledge says, among other things:

I commit […]

  • to always put humans before business, and to stand up against pressure to do otherwise, even at my own risk.

  • to never tolerate design for addiction, deception or control.

I am not enough of a technologist to take the pledge myself (or am I?) but I wonder if @matthias and @hugi would be up for taking it for the Edgeryders team.

I also wonder: how powerful is moral suasion in preventing creepy (but lucrative) stuff to happen? What do people think?

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Thanks Alberto. Yes, it’s an outcome of Techfestival.

Each Techfestival edition also brings together ‘the Copenhagen 150’, a changing group of 150 people from around tech, design etc. This year I had the pleasure of being able to attend, as I couldn’t make the earlier editions. Those 150 in 24 hours co-author / create something

  • In 2017 it was the Copenhagen Letter https://copenhagenletter.org
  • In 2018 it was the Copenhagen Catalog https://copenhagencatalog.org a collection of ‘white’ design patterns so to speak.
  • This year it was the TechPledge. Which took the content of the CPH Letter from 2017 as starting point.

The Hippocratic oath is old as you say, about 2500 yrs. The current version in use is from 1948 however, called the Geneva Declaration https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_Geneva

To me the key point about the declaration is that it anchors ethical considerations in the individual tech professional, and ties it to emotional hooks (will my loved ones want to use this / calling upon community to hold me to account). Thus moving away from only scrutinising company/organisation level behaviour in tech.
I believe danah boyd’s speech last week at the EFF is also very pertinent in this regard: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2019/09/15/facing-the-great-reckoning-head-on.html

As to your question about who is in tech?
I’m not sure I am, in the sense I don’t necessarily create code, hardware or some such. But I do design processes, methods as well as help the introduction of technology measures in client organisations and communities. To me ‘hard tech’ and the ‘soft’ tech of process/methods/organising are always intrinsically linked. So I consider myself within scope of the TechPledge.

(I think this is the first time I’ve been called mighty :smiley: )

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Not extremely powerfull I assume.

My take on this is, that the Hippocratic oath didn’t prevent unethical medical practice in its 2500 years of existence in general, but likely did in specific situations.

*What a pledge like that does do is provide an external impetus in what otherwise might be group / peer pressure decisions leading to unethical practices. It is very hard to be the only one in a peer group to go against consensus. It becomes a bit easier if your counter position isn’t just ‘your opinion’ and thus dismissed, but can lean a little bit on an outside artefact like the pledge. A mental crutch so you will, to stiffen some spines sometimes in group think situations.
*It also can serve as a personal mental checklist before engaging in new roles/projects/endeavours. A thinking tool.

Just some thoughts.

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Powerful stuff from Danah. Sadly, those who most need to hear it and adjust to its message are among the least likely to do something about it.

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