The conscience of Silicon Valley

There has been much uproar lately in Silicon Valley, April Glaser writes in an interesting piece in Slate.  Employees at Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Uber, and others, have expressed disapproval of their companies' involvement with police surveillance, military technology, or refugee policy.  Their efforts have apparently had an impact on corporate decisions.

The title of the article, "Silicon Valley grows a conscience," suggests that this phenomenon is a new thing.  However, as Glaser notes, criticism of technology business practise goes back many decades.

One important moment that always comes to my mind is the publication of the article "Would you sell a computer to Hitler?" by Laurie Nadel and Hesh Wiener in Computer Decisions in February 1977.  In particular, Nadel and Hesh were concerned about sales of IBM computers to repressive Latin American governments that used the equipment to organize repression and extrajudicial murder. 

They queried the big vendors of the day and got the following responses (p. 23):

'Most vendors say that they can not take responsibility for the ultimate use to which their products are put.

'“We are in a position similar to a car manufacturer,” says IBM’s director of information, Dan Burnham. “If General Motors sells you a car, and you use it to kill someone, that doesn’t make General Motors responsible.

'“Once a manufacturer sells the automobile, there’s no guarantee it won’t be used to commit a crime.”

'Control Data Corp.’s vice president Roger G. Wheeler, speaking for that company, concedes the responsibility of a manufacturer, especially a manufacturer of computers of awesome capacity. CDC, alone among American mainframe vendors, has a corporate policy governing the sale of its machines.

'“Our sense of responsibility,” says Wheeler, “would not permit us to provide a computer system for any purpose that abridges human rights and dignity.”

'Asked whether IBM has a similar policy, Dan Udell, an IBM public relations officer, said that “IBM’s official policy is to act in accordance with U.S. national policy in dealing with all countries.”'

Nadel and Wiener conclude the article by pleading for more stringent, international regulations, and more of a commitment to human dignity from computer professionals.

As Michael Malone noted, the piece caused a "firestorm".  He argues that the technology companies, the the main, followed IBM's policy of doing more-or-less whatever the US government permitted.

What is strikingly different in recent days is that it is the policy of American governments themselves that is the object of criticism by Silicon Valley employees.  Also, they seem to be more effective in having their voices heard by their employers. 

Perhaps, then, Silicon Valley has not recently grown a conscience so much as its problems are closer to home and the voice of that conscience has become harder to tune out.

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