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politics in software

15 January 2016

This is the first installment in a two-month series of posts on the intersection of politics and technology, written for an undergrad class at Western Washington University. The series consists of two bookend posts and four focused discussions; this is the first bookend post. You can find the other posts here, here, here, here, and here.

Near my family’s house in Seattle are two construction projects. The first is a refurbished waste transfer station; the second, a new corporate HQ. In spite of the differences in these buildings’ purposes, I’m willing to bet that the people building them have pretty similar feelings towards their work. What difference does it make, being a bricklayer for the state or a bricklayer for private industry? Perhaps not much. It’s understandable how some people tend to view their work as apolitical.

And yet, in building something that other people are going to use, you are in some sense helping those people, and so perhaps we should give serious thought to who it is that we help. In some domains it might not matter much – certainly there’s no shortage of people who can lay down bricks – but in others, very real political shifts can take place without anyone caring or even noticing.

This probably sounds pretty abstract. The goal of the series I’m writing here is to bring this discussion down to earth. I’m going to try to illustrate, through concrete examples, the real and serious consequences of the choices people make regarding the projects they support and the projects they ignore.

I’m focusing on software issues. There’s a reason for this. A lot of people see software development as “digital bricklaying”, and not without good reason: both tasks have the potential to be menial, repetitive, borderline rote, with little reward aside from wages. That said, it would be a mistake to let this comparison lead us to assume that the impact of software is no greater than that of other menial crafts. As soon as we get into social issues, the comparison breaks down.

There can be deep ramifications to software design decisions. Most people turn a blind eye here, or take only a superficial interest, caring about the politics just long enough to let someone convince them they’re on the right side, then wandering off in a happy haze to implement some new half-baked idea. Half a year later, that idea is leading to all sorts of unintended consequences. This is the sort of thing we would call naïveté if it were harmless. But when it impacts people’s lives, we don’t have the luxury of being so kind.

It’s not all bad. Yes, we have the NSA and its allies actively working to undermine the technologies that keep us all safe and secure online, and recruiting as much talent as they can into their closed ecosystems, indirectly hamstringing public research into technologies that grow more important with each passing month. But we also have people like Bruce Schneier and Phil Rogaway, the latter of whose linked paper is really one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. These people really do seem to be doing all they can to help advance the public good.

With so many intelligent, articulate, well-educated, well-connected, and well-respected voices on these issues, it almost feels arrogant or presumptuous to add my own. What do I have to say that they haven’t already said better?

I don’t have a good answer to that question. The fact is, in order to pass my major, I need to write a seven-part series of blog posts connected by some central theme, and I couldn’t find any other theme that sat as well with me as this one.

Here’s a bird’s-eye view of the topics I’m going to be covering in the next installments.

  • UEFI “Secure Boot”, its consequences for open source, and the dangers of letting moneyed interests write standards for all of us. (link)

  • The sharing economy, how it’s cool in some ways, and how in other ways it’s really not. The economic and regulatory angles make this a rich example of technology’s political dimension. (link)

  • The problem with media platforms refusing to pick sides in issues involving harassment. It is commonly claimed that non-involvement is a neutral stance. This could not be more wrong. (link)

  • The trend towards, and ramifications of, trying to legislate reality, where lawmakers demand technologies that simply do not – and often cannot – exist. (link)

These topics may move around a bit as I figure out how much or how little I may have to say about them. The first one should be up some time next week!