Tech and Philosophy Need To Fix Their Relationship Problem

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Over the past few years, the tech industry has begun to fetishize the field of philosophy. Entrepreneurs like Peter ThielReid Hoffman, and Stewart Butterfield have begun to publicly credit philosophy as integral to their success. Thought leaders like Tim Ferriss have introduced Stoicism to engineers. As a result, enthusiasm for philosophy has quickly grown -- but without any targeted direction. The tech industry's newfound obsession with this previously dismissed field of academia is misguided and shallow.

While identifying the precise motivation behind the philosophy trend is difficult, it could likely stem from insecurity. As universities pump out more and more computer science majors, engineers and entrepreneurs may seek new intellectual pursuits to distinguish them from their peers. Philosophy may attract sheep for its grandiose nature. Quoting Kant is often seen as a signal of individualism and intellectualism. And to be one of the legendary polymaths is alluring; being well-versed in a variety of disciplines, including philosophy, offers a sort of social edge. While engineers’ newfound interest in philosophy might reflect a sincere desire to understand the principles behind their work, more likely it is an attempt to conform to the latest Silicon Valley trend.

Regardless of the motivation, many of Silicon Valley's endeavors to adopt philosophy fall flat. Consider the application of one of the earliest fields of personal ethics, Stoicism, which preaches living abstemiously. Despite a bevy of newly-christened tech worker “stoics,” it is difficult to find people in Silicon Valley who actually exercise this life mantra. With luxuries like avocado toast and Kombucha on tap, the perks provided by Silicon Valley companies don't exactly scream "minimalist." Companies that offer vast and various food options to their employees, almost to the point of endorsing gluttony, claim to promote productivity. However, enjoying these top perks is antithetical to the stoic life these engineers preach.

Perhaps attempts to apply Stoicism and other fields of philosophy have failed. But seriously contemplated philosophy should be crucial to the tech world. For example, engineers, like the rest of us, should constantly try to recognize their moral intuitions and question them. Consider the age-old mission of the archetypical Silicon Valley company: to "change the world." But how does one decide what is good for the world? Luckily, others have grappled with these queries. In fact, thinkers have spent millennia developing the field of ethics. Another Review writer similarly argued the importance of the study of ethics for engineering, asking for rigorous classes in ethics as part of computer science education. Beyond computer science education, however, without ethics, technologists cannot truly define what “good” they are trying to achieve. Ethics in engineering is much more useful for engineers to learn than Stoicism; whether you are personally happy is ultimately not as important as determining if the code you write could hurt society.

The oft-maligned Facebook is a prime example of the importance of ethical inquiry in the realm of tech. Worryingly, no community in history has reached a similar size to Facebook without a guiding set of philosophical principles. Many modern countries like the United States established guidelines like those in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence before experiencing significant growth. To determine the optimal creed for a community is challenging, and there is no obvious answer. Therefore each company must ask its own set of ethical questions, contingent on what it is endeavoring to build. It took the Facebook team nearly 14 years to conclude that not everything they were working on was, on the net, beneficial for the world. Many former early Facebook employees are only now recognizing that a failure to consider whether their products were ethical allowed issues like newsfeed addiction and misinformation to flourish. Consider the following example.

Many former Facebook executives have come forward about their opinions on the product that they helped make. Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, recognized the issues of social media addiction that Facebook can play in our lives. Similarly, Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook VP of Growth, criticized Facebook for its misinformation problem, citing that “bad actors can now manipulate large swathes of people.” Since then, Zuckerberg has also concededthat Facebook, far from being an obvious good, presents real moral conundrums. His recent introspection and reflection set an example that engineers ought to emulate if they genuinely strive to change the world for the better. While tech behemoths like Facebook may help the economy and society, they must also be cognizant of their products’ potential negative consequences. And it is the responsibility of engineers, the architects of these products, to grapple with challenging ethical questions.

While advocating for the importance of philosophy might seem airy and idealistic, in fact, a single engineer with strong ethical principles can change the tides of a large company. In Silicon Valley, engineers are prized; in large tech companies, they are easily the most valued employees. Without them, tech companies’ product would not exist. Moreover, there have been countless instances in which engineers have been able to convince leadership to cancel a product on moral grounds.

For years, Google’s code of conduct included the motto “don’t be evil.” Although the slogan is vague, it has sometimes successfully encouraged engineers to stop and ponder the ethical and societal ramifications of the products they develop. Consider the following incident at Google, in which the chairman describes how an engineer prevented a product’s release.

"So what happens is, I'm sitting in this meeting, and we're having this debate about an advertising product. And one of the engineers pounds his fists on the table and says, that's evil. And then the whole conversation stops, everyone goes into conniptions, and eventually we stopped the project. So [the “don’t be evil policy”] did work."

This incident serves not to frame Google as a perfect company. Nevertheless, it illustrates the influence that engineers hold within Silicon Valley. Philosophy has often been a means for Silicon Valley to engage with the humanities shallowly, rather than to meaningfully change behavior. But the study of ethics should serve as a guide for engineers and entrepreneurs. Engineers should examine the products they are creating and lives they are living. Only then can they fairly claim that they are trying to change the world for good.

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