The Concrete Sumo - Ethics in Software Engineering Discussion Guide

I prepared this discussion guide for Taft H. Broome, Jr’s The Concrete Sumo” and facilitated it two weeks ago for the software engineering team at Code for America.


To prepare for the discussion, please read the following sections of paper, “The Concrete Sumo”:

  • Forward
  • The Concrete Sumo

    Note: the paragraph beginning “In the Johnny-on-the-Spot, Tubby was the first to speak to me…” is particularly difficult because it begins with an unfamiliar colloquialism (“Johnny-on-the-Spot” meaning to be on-call, in the hot seat, put on the spot, or put on notice); names three characters who are not introduced until much later in the commentary (Tubby, Roebling, and Uncle Roy); and the protagonist is imagining the three characters giving him advice though they are not actually present. — Ben

  • Heuristic: Uncle Roy, the Mutumin Kiri
  • The Assigned World
  • Afterword

These sections have been selected for brevity and focus. The paper has been described by ethicist Michael Davis as an “informative story groaning under the weight of an interpretation it cannot bear.” Therefore, the reading and discussion will focus on the story and its application to software engineering ethics. — Ben

Discussion Questions

  • This is a paper about ethics. Generally, what do you think of when you think of “ethics”? What does it mean to you to act ethically or be ethical? 
  • In the paper, the author introduces the idea of “exigent circumstances”, described as situations that “are so complex as to deny engineers the reflection required to invoke ethical theories, and so novel as to discourage engineers from appealing to case studies.”
    • In the story of the Concrete Sumo, what is the exigent circumstances the author confronts?
    • What similar situations have you had like this in your life or work?
  • The author speaks of a “scientific” decision defined as “with or without scientific certitude, but with the commitment of the parties to the situation”. 
    • In the story of the Concrete Sumo, what made the decision “scientific”? Who were the directly committed parties? Why do you think “commitment” is specifically called out?
    • Thinking more broadly about engineering as a discipline and vocation, who is committed to engineers making good decisions? Within software engineering, what groups and organizations make up our “scientific” community? 
  • The author introduces a practice (“praxistic”) to be used in exigent situations. Broadly that practice is to “think of an aged, highly mature person: a family member or some legendary character; someone who exhibited great wisdom and caring for others” and to “do what [they] would do.”
    • In the story, what people did the author imagine and act out? Who was the counter-example whose actions they rejected?
    • Does the practice here seem familiar and in what ways? Do you have people, real or fictional, that you have sought, mentally, for advice? Are there situations where you have or would apply this?
    • In the Afterword, the author speaks of the practice helping students pass an ethics exam. How does that make you feel?
  • The author goes to great lengths to assert not only that the imagined role model inspires a suitable action, but also that they are respected in their social context and communities, with attributes such as “wisdom”, “character” and “caring for others”. 
    • What cultural context did the author use in choosing Uncle Roy and rejecting Tubby? Is this familiar to you?
    • What different social contexts, worlds, or communities, fictional or real, could guide you? How are they different and similar? Is breadth or depth of understanding better?
    • As an engineer, how does the idea of being guided by an imagined or fictional character make you feel? As an engineer, do you think your education or experience has prepared you to think in this way?
    • What are the ingredients necessary to further develop this practice both for yourself and engineering as a whole?
  • In “The Rhetoric” section (not required reading), the author writes “In Western ethics, the decision-maker is the subject, and the rightness or wrongness of his or her actions its predicate. Among the Nigerian Hausa, however, the community is the subject, and the decision-maker’s character the predicate.” 
    • What do you think the author means by making this comparison?
    • How does it make you feel to shift from “the decision-maker and their decision” to “the community’s responsibility for the decision a person makes”?
    • How many communities can a person be a part of? How can they overlap or diverge? How does intersectionality affect your thoughts about responsibility?
  • Within software and technology, there are recognized leaders who have made large contributions to the field, but also have been called out for their gross personal beliefs and antisocial behavior. For example, Steve Jobs, Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Uncle Bob Martin, etc. 
    • Thinking of the practice described in the paper, is it practical to separate people’s technical contributions from their character?
    • Is it easy for you to imagine yourself acting in their skin? Why or why not?
    • Thinking of the practice described in the paper, how might diversity and inclusion in our engineering communities help people to act ethically? 
    • What is our communities’ responsibility for creating the conditions in which people make ethical decisions? What can we reasonably expect?
  • Bowen H. McCoy, in Harvard Business Review’s “Parable of the Sadhu” describes the concept of “business” ethics. Business ethics “has to do with the authenticity and integrity of the enterprise. To be ethical is to follow the business as well as the cultural goals of the corporation, its owners, its employees, and its customers. Those who cannot serve the corporate vision are not authentic businesspeople and, therefore, are not ethical in the business sense.”
    • How is this similar to the Forward’s Vanderbilt quote “The public be damned! I work for my stockholders”?
    • How is the context of “business” ethics defined? Who defines the visions and goals and what are they relative to?
    • How is this “business” ethics similar to and different from the “scientific” engineering ethics we’ve been discussing? 
  • Facebook employees recently published a letter criticising the company’s lax fact-checking policies for political ads. After explaining the problems with the policy and suggesting alternatives, they closed their letter with “This is still our company.”
    • When thinking of Western and non-Western frames, what multiple interpretations could there be of that phrase? How does framing something as a “leadership” decision affect how we approach it compared to the idea of “community” responsibility?
    • How is the idea of “scientific” decisions challenged in a “business” environment? How are the power dynamics different in a business than a community? How are they the same? Can they be wholly separated within the context of software engineering?
  • Software engineering communities have frequently raised the idea of a “Hippocratic Oath” to improve ethical conduct in software engineering and emerging fields such as Machine Learning and AI.
    • Given the reading, how applicable would such an oath be in exigent circumstances? 
    • Given the reading, what else would be necessary to make a Hippocratic Oath actionable and meaningful to engineers? How could existing software engineering communities better provide stories of such an oath’s usage by representative role models?
  • At the very end of the story, the foreman says “When it comes to rookie engineers, it is better to pay early, than to pay later.” 
    • Given all we have discussed, what could this mean? 
    • Who pays early? Later? What are the costs?
  • In what ways, if any, has this reading made you think you would act differently in the future?

Public comments on Sunset housing

Today I spoke in public comment before the San Francisco Planning Commission on a proposed 20-unit building in the Outer Sunset at 3945 Judah St.:

Good afternoon, Commissioners.

My name is Ben Sheldon. I have been a resident of the Outer Sunset for 8 years.

I support this project.

I live 4 blocks away from the proposed project. I live in a 4 story, 12 unit multi-family apartment building.

My building is vibrant. It is home to senior citizens, families with young children, teachers, and working professionals like myself.

We shop at local businesses. Eat at local restaurants. Attend local schools. We participate fully in the civic life of our neighborhood.

Multi-family buildings. Dense. And large. Like my own, and the proposed project, are part of the character of our neighborhood.

My building was built in 1928. It makes me sad. And at times angry. That a building like my own seemingly could not be built today.

My building is not enough. It is not modern. It is not accessible for the very old or people with disabilities. It has lead and toxicity issues of concern for very young children.

The neighborhood needs more buildings like my own. Better ones.

Multi-family. Dense. Accessible. Modern. Vibrant.

This project is equally an issue of inclusion as it is of character.

I support this project.

I urge you to support this project too.

Thank you.


Trust and safety

When I heard this on the radio I was impressed (it may be a low bar) with Pinterest’s Ifeoma Ozoma’s responses to NPR’s Audie Cornish:

OZOMA: Our goal, really, is harm reduction. And so because we’re humble about our limitations and our own expertise here, we look to outside experts like the WHO, CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics and their guidance on what’s harmful.

CORNISH: Now, there are some critics of this move. Jennifer Granick of the ACLU told The Wall Street Journal that this is dangerous, that it’s essentially a secretive process, no real appeal. People are making very difficult subject calls when it comes to politics and culture and religion. What’s your response?

OZOMA: So to that, we have clear and transparent community guidelines. And this is just one way of enforcing, like…

CORNISH: Like buried in the terms and conditions or what do you mean by that?

OZOMA: No. Nope. They’re clear in our community guidelines on our website. And we also, whenever we have a search that we’ve removed results for, we explain right in there in the search advisory why we removed it, and we link to those community guidelines. And we also have an appeals process for any content that’s taken down.

CORNISH: Is this essentially censorship?

OZOMA: For us, we don’t see it as that. There’s an enthusiasm gap between those who save harmful health misinformation and organizations like the CDC and WHO and American Academy of Pediatrics. And so because of that, you’re going to find more health misinformation than, say, journal articles on the virtues of vaccination or other science-based health interventions. We’ve taken the view that further sharing that harmful content through our search results isn’t in line with enforcing our community guidelines.

CORNISH: Your title is public policy and social impact manager. None of those things are things we thought about when we thought about social media when it was first starting up, right? We called them platforms. They were just places we put things that we wanted to share. When do you think this mindset changed?

OZOMA: We have had content policy and trust and safety teams since the beginning. And so safety has always been a consideration when you think about different types of harmful content, whether they’re illegal or not illegal. Safety has been top of mind and still is for every team across the company.


Attention

This zine, Your Attention is Sovereign(PDF) by Jay Springett (via Phil Gyford) which is a collection of 6 essays:

Your attention is sovereign.

There are two things that should be addressed.

  1. You, personally, get to decide where you put your attention.
  2. By acknowledging this fact you have to take full responsibility for where you have put your attention in the past, and where you will put it in the future.

I’ve been attempting to find mechanisms to remind myself that my attention is sovereign every single time I open an app on my phone. The only solution, has been to keep it in my pocket and not even try and open an app. Slowly slowly you begin to not bother pulling out your phone at all. If you are actually doing something, like reading a longread news article and feel the urge to check social media you have to think to yourself ‘Should I open twitter again or should I keep doing what I was doing’.

Maria Farrell’s This is your phone on feminism via Bruce Schneier:

Let’s face the truth. We are in an abusive relationship with our phones.

Ask yourself the first three questions that UK non-profit Women’s Aid suggests to determine if you’re in an abusive relationship:

  • Has your partner tried to keep you from seeing your friends or family?
  • Has your partner prevented you or made it hard for you to continue or start studying, or from going to work?
  • Does your partner constantly check up on you or follow you?

If you substitute ‘phone’ for ‘partner’, you could answer yes to each question. And then you’ll probably blame yourself.

If this feels dangerously close to trivializing abuse and intimate partner violence, then stick with me just a minute more. What our smartphones and relationship abusers share is that they both exert power over us in a world shaped to tip the balance in their favour, and they both work really, really hard to obscure this fact and keep us confused and blaming ourselves. Here are some of the ways our unequal relationship with our smartphones is like an abusive relationship:

  • They isolate us from deeper, competing relationships in favour of superficial contact – ‘user engagement’ – that keeps their hold on us strong. Working with social media, they insidiously curate our social lives, manipulating us emotionally with dark patterns to keep us scrolling.
  • They tell us the onus is on us to manage their behavior. It’s our job to tiptoe around them and limit their harms. Spending too much time on a literally-designed-to-be-behaviorally-addictive phone? They send company-approved messages about our online time, but ban from their stores the apps that would really cut our use. We just need to use willpower. We just need to be good enough to deserve them.
  • They betray us, leaking data / spreading secrets. What we shared privately with them is suddenly public. Sometimes this destroys lives, but hey, we only have ourselves to blame. They fight nasty and under-handed, and are so, so sorry when they get caught that we’re meant to feel bad for them. But they never truly change, and each time we take them back, we grow weaker.
  • They love-bomb us when we try to break away, piling on the free data or device upgrades, making us click through page after page of dark pattern, telling us no one understands us like they do, no one else sees everything we really are, no one else will want us.
  • It’s impossible to just cut them off. They’ve wormed themselves into every part of our lives, making life without them unimaginable. And anyway, the relationship is complicated. There is love in it, or there once was. Surely we can get back to that if we just manage them the way they want us to?

Nope. Our devices are basically gaslighting us. They tell us they work for and care about us, and if we just treat them right then we can learn to trust them. But all the evidence shows the opposite is true. This cognitive dissonance confuses and paralyses us. And look around. Everyone has a smartphone. So it’s probably not so bad, and anyway, that’s just how things work. Right?


Truths about the interpretation of falsehood articles

I enjoy “falsehood programmers believe” articles for the same reason as Graham Lee, who also points out that I shouldn’t assume others approach those articles (or any seemingly common structure) the same:

As the sort of programmer who writes falsehoods programmers believe articles , my belief is that interesting challenges to my beliefs will trigger some curiosity, and lead me to research the counterexamples and solutions. Or at least, to file away the fact that counterexamples exist until I need it, or am otherwise more motivated to learn about it.

But that motivation is not universal. The fact that I treat it as universal turns it into a falsehood I believe about readers of falsehoods articles. Complaints abound that falsehoods articles do not lead directly to fish on the plate . Some readers want a clear breakdown from “thing you might think is true but isn’t true” to “Javascript you can paste in your project to account for it not being true”. These people are not well-served by falsehoods articles.


Wiggle your toes

I’ve started collecting ideas that are anti-flow. From Jonathan Bach’s Above the Clouds: A Reunion of Father and Son:

I turned a shallow left, lined up the directional gyro until the needle pointed to 36.

Another fifteen seconds in that bank and I dipped the let wing to see a little inlet, a freshwater lake with foothills surrounding it.

Richard took the stick.

“Here, I’ll just yank it around to base. Bring the power back a bit to fifteen hundred rpm.”

The takeoff was easy; landings were much different. It’s one thing to go from zero to one hundred twenty miles an hour, but do it backward?

“Uh, I don’t know…”

“Just one step at a time. Power back.”

Power Back.

“Flaps down.”

Down.

“Wiggle toes.”

“Wiggle toes?”

“Yep. Try it. Wiggle your toes.”

“Okay”

I did it. For those few seconds I was a passenger.

“Helps you relax. Am I right?”

“Hey! That’s cool. It works.”

“Makes you aware that you’re still human, that the airplane doesn’t have control of you.”

Sure enough, I had been caught up in exactly that, letting myself be an airplane.


Team Number One

Last week I attended Code Climate’s Engineering Leadership Summit. The content overwhelmingly focused on the “team” of people you manage, rather than your “team” of other managers and leadership.

From “The Advantage” by Patrick Lencioni:

The only way for a leader to establish this collective mentality on a team is by ensuring that all members place a higher priority on the team they’re a member of than the team they lead in their departments. A good way to go about this is simply to ask them which team is their first priority. I’ve found that many well-intentioned executives will admit that in spite of their commitment to the team that they’re a member of, the team they lead is their first priority. They’ll point out that they hired their direct reports, they sit near them and spend more time with them every day, and they enjoy being the leader of that team. Moreover, they feel a sense of loyalty to the people they manage, and feel that those people want and need their protection.

This is absolutely natural, common, and understandable. And dangerous.

When members of a leadership team feel a stronger sense of commitment and loyalty to the team they lead than the one they’re a member of, then the team they’re a member of becomes like the U.S. Congress or the United Nations: it’s just a place where people come together to lobby for their constituents. Teams that lead healthy organizations reject this model and come to terms with the difficult but critical requirement that executives must put the needs of the higher team ahead of the needs of their departments. That is the only way that good decisions can be made about how best to serve the entire organization and maximize its performance.

The advantage that can be achieved by shifting a team’s priorities from individual to collective ones, and thus demonstrating a true commitment to team number one, is undeniable.


Core promotion challenges

From “Your Next Move” by Michael D. Watkins in the section of Core promotion challenges:

What's really changed? What should you do?
Broader impact horizon: There is a broader range of issues, people, and ideas to focus on. Balance depth and breadth
Greater complexity and ambiguity: There are more variables, and there is greater uncertainty about outcomes. Delegate more deeply.
Tougher organization politics: There are more powerful stakeholders to contend with. Influence differently.
Further from the front lines: There is greater distance between you and the people executing on the ground, potentially weakening communication and adding more filters. Communicate more formally.
More scrutiny: There is more attention paid to your actions by more people, more frequently. Adjust to greater visibility.

Quantitative usability, assistive technology, and the right to privacy

You have a legal obligation to produce an accessible website; these are some thoughts about what comes next.

At Lighthouse Labs this month, there was a lively discussion on “Detecting accessibility events, a debate on the ethics and implications of this new feature from Apple” [article]. I offered this in the pre-discussion email thread:

I wanted to share some perspective as a web developer: I would like to have aggregated analytics about what screen-readers are using my website (how many and which ones). Here’s why:

Within an agile process, once we achieve the baseline of WCAG/valid/passable/usable, the question becomes how do we make it even better and where do we start? Being able to point to analytics is useful for prioritization discussions about bottlenecks/friction. For example, on GetCalFresh.org, which has helped 700k people apply for food stamps, we can identify completion differences between, for example, English and Spanish-language users on particular parts of an application flow, and prioritize improvements based on frequency and severity. I don’t have the data to do that kind of prioritization for screen-readers, but I would like to.

The Lighthouse Labs discussion brought up several dimensions of the issues:

  • People with disabilities are legally protected from discrimination, and have legal rights to privacy of their conditions and freedom from discrimination.
  • If the lived experience is a spectrum of “discrimination - inaccessibility - accommodation - accessibility - usability” (these are my words, imprecise), the majority of experience lives towards the left of that spectrum. Everyone has a story of being identified as a low value / low priority user.
  • Some people would like to be fully and accessibly served; others would like to remain apart; everyone wants individual agency in that decision. An example of this was some people saying “I want websites to be completely accessible” and others saying “I’m fine not experiencing advertising and junk”. This came up as “ghettoization”, but I have been thinking about it as the difference between exclusion and seclusion.
  • Differentiating between accessibility, accommodation and discrimination in digital products is important yet slippery. An example: Twitter’s native iOS client generally works with Voiceover (accessible), but used a separated streamlined UI for composing a tweet when the app detected that VoiceOver was in use (accommodation); when Twitter changed to 280 characters, they failed to update that sheet in a timely manner (discrimination). [article]

When discussing this with a my data science coworker, she shared “Counting the Countless: Why data science is a profound threat for queer people” by Os Keyes:

So: trans existences are built around fluidity, contextuality, and autonomy, and administrative systems are fundamentally opposed to that. Attempts to negotiate and compromise with those systems (and the state that oversees them) tend to just legitimize the state, while leaving the most vulnerable among us out in the cold. This is important to keep in mind as we veer toward data science, because in many respects data science can be seen as an extension of those administrative logics: It’s gussied-up statistics, after all — the “science of the state.”

…perhaps a more accurate definition of data science would be:The inhumane reduction of humanity down to what can be counted.

Within the context of assistive technology, it is not a far leap between tracking screenreader usage and creating an implication of a disability and the segmentation that comes with it.

These discussions have made me think a lot more about my own digital footprints. I frequently use VoiceOver to explore websites and mobile apps and I now wonder about the impact/risks of being tracked and weigh them against the benefits to my own design practice and discernment, of which quantitative analysis is a tool.

If you have thoughts about this post, quantitative usability testing and advanced product management for assistive technology and disabilities, I’d love to chat. Tweet me at @bensheldon or email me at [email protected].


Weeknotes for April 7, 2019

The back page of “Learning How to Learn” by Joseph D. Novak, D. Bob Gowin, and Jane Butler Kahle still gives me goosebumps to read:

For almost a century, educational theory and practice have been influenced by the view of behavioral psychologists that learning is synonymous with behavior change. In this book, the authors argue for the practical importance of an alternate view, that learning is synonymous with a change in the meaning of experience. They develop their theory of the conceptual nature of knowledge and describe classroom-tested strategies for helping students to construct new and more powerful meanings and to integrate thinking, feeling, and acting.

In their research, they have found consistently that standard educational practices that do not lead learners to grasp the meaning of tasks usually fail to give them confidence in their abilities. It is necessary to understand why and how new information is related to what one already knows.

All those concerned with the improvement of education will find something of interest in Learning how to learn.

I revisited “When you get that wealthy, you start to buy your own bullshit”: The miseducation of Sheryl Sandberg” which I’ve been tweeting about. From “The Parable of the Sadhu”, a Harvard Business case study by Bowen McCoy, which is held up as an example of bullshit and stands in contrast to the ethics of The Concrete Sumo:

The word ethics turns off many and confuses more. Yet the notions of shared values and an agreed-upon process for dealing with adversity and change – what many people mean when they talk about corporate culture – seem to be at the heart of the ethical issue. People who are in touch with their own core beliefs and the beliefs of others and who are sustained by them can be more comfortable living on the cutting edge. At times, taking a tough line or a decisive stand in a muddle of ambiguity is the only ethical thing to do. If a manager is indecisive about a problem and spends time trying to figure out the “good” thing to do, the enterprise may be lost.

Business ethics, then, has to do with the authenticity and integrity of the enterprise. To be ethical is to follow the business as well as the cultural goals of the corporation, its owners, its employees, and its customers. Those who cannot serve the corporate vision are not authentic businesspeople and, therefore, are not ethical in the business sense.

I had an interesting conversation with my friend Rob about Single Transferable Vote schemes. For example, when there are 3 seats and 5 candidates, it’s a process for re-assigning “surplus” votes once one candidate has enough votes to win a seat. I had also come across a definition of wealth that had me thinking of the limits of consumption:

The current meaning of wealth is not the amount you own, but rather how much you can consume (sustainably). Formally, the definition is Total of all assets of an economic unit that generate current income or have the potential to generate future income. This is of course the same amount as the amount that you can sustainably consume. This means that we can measure wealth either as production or as consumption.

…remember that you cannot consume money. You can only consume goods and services. Amassing riches has little value in itself. It is mainly a way (for an individual or group) to postpone consumption to some point in the future.

This post on “Trust and Integrity” by Jessie Frazelle resonated:

I think people tend to under estimate how important it is to be transparent about things that don’t need to be private. I’ve seen a lot of people in positions of power, use their power of keeping information privateagainstthose under them. They don’t fully disclose the “why” and it leads to people they manage not fully being able to help solve the problem as well as not fully understanding the problem. It also doesn’t build trust.

From “The Vision 2 and the Severing of Politics from Video Games” by Simon Parkin (emphasis mine):

Taking those risks requires supporting structures that, in Pedercini’s view, the industry lacks. “The parallel with the film industry is useful,” he said. “A politically uncompromising film like ‘Sorry to Bother You’ became a blockbuster, but its production would not have been possible without Sundance and a whole supportive ecosystem.” Video games have no such ecosystem; as Yang put it, the medium is in the process of reverse-engineering an art form from an entertainment business. “We have to build the arts-and-culture platforms and the festival circuits,” Yang said. “We have to convince funding bodies and governments that games are worth more than their sales numbers.”

Penelope Trunk’s “Here’s the high-priced advice college applicants buy that doesn’t trigger the FBI”:

…the workplace is just like college admissions. You learn the rules and use them to your advantage. So teach your kids when they’re young that the higher the stakes the game is, the more arcane the rules are. And the more arcane the rules, the more likely it is that you can find a backdoor route to the top.

But pretending the system is a meritocracy encourages more discrimination –– so says economist Robert Frank. And belief that one has succeeded inside a meritocracy leads to more self-congratulatory, selfish behavior. Frank says people who accept that all of life is about skill and luck are much more likely to be thankful and therefore more generous.

Bottom line: Gaming the system is a great idea, but you can’t game the system if you don’t have good grades. Hard work counts too. So raise a kid who has gratitude. Because when it comes to being a happy person, having gratitude is much more important than having a fancy diploma.

“Ilhan Omar’s Embattled First Months in Office” by Benjamin Wallace-Wells:

“I don’t have a way of making myself less threatening as a black person, as a black woman, as a Muslim person. And so it is just living with the reality that there are people who will see you as a threat. And figuring out how do you not allow that to deter the work that you have to get done.”