The Code of the Coders

Or, A Glitch in the System
There is no neutrality. It’s not if there is a code, but which code will be written, and then followed.

Tracy Chou is an “entrepreneur, software engineer, and diversity advocate.” (I can get excited about at least two out of three of those.) Almost a year ago she wrote about why every tech worker needs a humanities education. The foundational questions she asks are crucial for anyone involved in creating, consuming, and educating others about either of the previous two.

Chou warns:

“As much as code and computation and data can feel as if they are mechanistically neutral, they are not. Technology products and services are built by humans who build their biases and flawed thinking right into those products and services—which in turn shapes human behavior and society, sometimes to a frightening degree.”

She was asking herself questions such as:

“what it was that I was working on, and to what end, and why.” … “what behaviors we wanted to incentivize amongst our users” … “We pondered the philosophical question—also very relevant to our product—of whether people were by default good or bad.” … and “the default views we pushed to users.”

So just the things about the nature of human beings and how to steer them. With code. And the order of pictures. (Is it a coincidence that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all mess with the chronological timeline? For whom is it a better experience?)

Here’s Chou’s conclusion (and again, you should read the whole thing):

“I now wish that I had strived for a proper liberal arts education….I wish I’d even realized that these were worthwhile thoughts to fill my mind with—that all of my engineering work would be contextualized by such subjects.”

This is part of the reason we love our classical, Christian school. Because we don’t assume, let alone seek, neutrality, we’re in a much better position to see biases, including the ones in ourselves, and to seek answers from our Creator who wrote the ultimate Code. Doctors, nurses, code jockeys, rocket scientists, accountants, and bridge builders all need to know the details of their work, but the greater what and why of their work require knowing the what and why of mankind first.

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