Technology Ethics: Three Key Takeaways
by Raisa Chowdhury, 2022 Design & Technology Fellow
A few weeks ago, I arrived back in Calgary from an experience I will never forget. I was one of 13 people accepted as a FASPE fellow within the Design and Technology cohort. Our goal was the exploration of our own sense of professional ethical responsibility while learning about the companies, bureaucrats, and everyday people who made the Holocaust possible. The two-week program meant visits to sites charged with terrifying historical significance: Auschwitz, the House of the Wannsee Conference—any number of places I had heard of and many I hadn’t. What follows is really a reflection on what I learned, more than a concise argument. The experience was so recent and so overwhelming that it couldn’t be any other way.
Key Takeaway 1: Ethics is Hard!
Most fundamentally, the program exposed me to the complexity of technological ethics; the field is much more nuanced than I initially perceived! Before my trip, I thought that I could always avoid ethical issues if I were faced with them—they needn’t be my issue; I could head them off. At bottom, I imagined a world in which an ethical challenge would be so obvious that I’d be able to identify it immediately and act accordingly. FASPE exposed me to the stories of design and technology professionals during WW2 who acted unethically—and didn’t necessarily believe they were doing so. These individuals were complacent and oftentimes active contributors to the oppression and murder of Jewish people during the Holocaust. Many saw the atrocities happening with their own eyes, even conducting site visits to concentration camps to ensure crematoria were working efficiently. Very few of these people, however, considered their actions to be unethical or criminal. Quite the opposite! Many of them strived, according to their personal goals, views, and ambitions, to design and create a “better world.” In Heinrich Himmler’s 1943 speech at Posen, for example, he describes the evacuation and extermination of the Jewish people as “this most difficult task” done “out of love for [his] own people”. What a haunting thought: ethical challenges and lapses aren’t just not obvious—they also can seem like the right thing to do!
Then there’s the problem of conformity. It can be challenging to stand up for yourself and others, especially when you are working with senior leaders who are much more knowledgeable and important than you in your field. Often, our personal interests and priorities get in the way of doing the right thing. It’s easier—living our lives day to day as we do—to look the other way, to act to further our careers, or reduce friction in the workplace. I learned just how easy it can be to minimize your personal responsibility, the impact you can have, and thereby to effectively disregard the power you do have to make a change. By the time many technology professionals were involved in the Holocaust, for instance, the Nazi Party had already developed its antisemitic narrative, which built on existing hatred, and spread it across the country. For many, it became the norm to engage in this type of behavior even if one wasn’t necessarily an active supporter of these values oneself—why rock the boat?
Reflecting on this, I now see the importance of paying attention to the team and corporate culture of the organizations one associates with. If people are liable to go with the flow, then the culture is a major check on their doing the wrong thing. Ethical conflicts can’t be avoided, so I learned from FASPE—they must be understood and confronted.
Key Takeaway 2: Language Matters
How we speak about everything matters. The Nazi Party and the professionals working for and within it used well-crafted, seemingly harmless slogans and phrases to veil what was being done to Jewish communities during the Holocaust. Terms such as “resettlement” indicated the forceful removal of people from areas of German settlement. “Final solution” became a euphemism for murdering Jews. Such a phrase legitimizes the actions taken by the Nazi Party through the dehumanization of the victims of the Holocaust. And yet, the phrase (if we can imagine it before the Shoah) sounds innocuous enough, like the last, successful attempt made to solve a longstanding problem. Similarly, Kurt Prufer, the Topf and Sons engineer who developed the design of the cremation machines used in concentration camps referred to his creations as “incineration chambers” instead of “cremation chambers” and strove to “improve [the] efficiency” of his designs to better please the Nazi Party.1 These nondescript phrases allowed Topf and Sons to spin their involvement in the Holocaust as strictly a question of normal innovation within the market. As someone who has worked in the tech sector, I have seen how language is sometimes weaponized to make room for ignorance. I have heard of people working on projects where others have used “workforce transformation” instead of “layoffs” or “human hours saved” to indicate how many people will be displaced from their roles.
While ordinary language has the power to shield unethical actions, FASPE helped me understand that our words can unmask them, throw light upon them. Through this experience, I learned about giving voice to values. During each of the sessions within the Design and Technology group, we began with a list of definitions for a few terms. Contrasted word-pairs like “obligation” versus “duty” and “design” versus “infrastructure” helped me wrap my head around the complexities of technology ethics. How we discuss things affects how we think about and act on them. Going forward, I plan to pay closer attention to how words are used in my work environment. Subtle shifts in phrasing can affect the narratives I spoke about in part one. Properly transformed, and as we saw above, those narratives often have great force, making vigilance all the more key.
Key Takeaway 3: Technology is Exciting
My final key takeaway from the fellowship program was really a kind of reaffirmation: the trip reinforced my appreciation for the technology industry as a dynamic, fast-paced, complex, and diverse environment. The FASPE Design and Technology group was a great reflection of how diverse technologists can be. Our cohort included various types of engineers, architects, designers, researchers, and technology consultants. Indeed, we had professionals that worked in industry and academia, and even individuals that have, at one time or another, worked in both. This combination exposed me to how academic professionals tackle technology ethics challenges and how different it is from how I learned to approach them in industry. While we each had our own backgrounds and career aspirations, we all shared a common interest in working toward a more ethical technology sector. FASPE taught me that everyone needs to have a seat at the table as individuals bring particular perspectives, discouraging groupthink. Less conformity and more dynamism act as checks on the sort of herd mentality that so often makes participation in horrific actions possible.
FASPE exposed me to the multifaceted nature of the technology industry, something not always visible in the office or in meetings. Within our cohort, there were often quite different ways of thinking about and addressing the ethical challenges we discussed in our sessions. People felt comfortable being open. Such dynamism and contention prompted me to reflect on which ethical challenges I am most interested in solving, which parts of this massive industry I’d like to focus on. Indeed, through research and speaking to faculty and other fellows, I learned that I am particularly moved by the impact of various technologies on marginalized communities and how people consent to these effects. Without FASPE, that would not be as obvious to me; I would not be fully considering the ethical valences of technological effects.
I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity FASPE has granted me. This fellowship served as an immense source of both personal and professional growth. I am very appreciative of Thorsten Wagner, Rebecca Scott, and David Goldman for organizing such a well-run program, and of David Danks and Mona Sloane for facilitating very thoughtful discussions, supporting the learning of my peers and me through the program—not to mention our various tour guides and teachers. Without these thinkers, organizers, and educators, I would not be thinking so hard about how deeply intertwined the ethical and the technological really are; I would not be evaluating just how much words matter in creating narratives around the devices and programs we use, how these ways of speaking affect how we understand complicity. For these insights and so for much more, I am forever thankful.
Raisa Chowdhury was a 2022 FASPE Design and Technology Fellow. She is a senior business analyst with the Business Customer Experience Team at TELUS.
- Bartlett, K. (2018, August 21). Inside the company behind the Nazi concentration camp ovens. Time. Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://time.com/5371687/nazi-camp-crematorium-builders/