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Tech’s Military Dilemma (newrepublic.com)
88 points by LinuxBender 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 85 comments

I like how most comments here ignore that if the US military / intelligence apparatus simply stopped engaging in morally dubious or bankrupt operations, most people would have no problem helping them create weapons. Would I create weapons if I knew they would only be used in defense or other highly ethical ways? Of course. But you’re kidding yourself if you think the current US military and its contractors won’t use those weapons to drone innocent people in Yemen and sell those weapons to countries like Saudi Arabia.

This is a two sided debate but all I see here is people arguing whether tech workers should or should not care about personal politics. The other side is whether the US cares enough about having good technology that they’re willing to act more morally. Perhaps neglecting that possibility shows we don’t even think there’s a chance of that happening

> But you’re kidding yourself if you think the current US military and its contractors won’t use those weapons to drone innocent people in Yemen

The US military actually doesn’t want that to happen. It invests huge amount of resources in developing processes and tech to minimize collateral damage and civilian deaths. Winning hearts and minds is just as important to the mission as dropping bombs on ISIS and Al Qeada.

Even if the US military itself doesn't, the US has allies who don't seem to care as much about innocent people being hurt: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/08/yemen-us-made-bombs-used...

That doesn't even touch on the fact that the US involves itself in many conflicts where the enemy combatants are pretty much "innocent" relative to the US, and continually approves arms sales to despotic dictators installed via US-backed regime change. A lot of the unethical actions of the US are outsourced

A lot of great tech has came out of military projects like GPS and virtually all of space technology. Arguably, a lot of these tech would not have been developed otherwise because either there was no commercial use case or capital requirements would have been too high. A lot of research is funded by programs like DARPA. There are several military projects that can actually prevent wars and save lives (drone surveillance in war zone being one). I think companies need to take balanced look.

I don't find this line of argumentation ("But the military builds great stuff, too!"), not to be very convincing. They also build a lot of really, really horrible stuff, and most of the good stuff was actually built to support the horrible stuff.

> According to Stephen J. Lukasik, who as Deputy Director and Director of DARPA (1967–1974) was "the person who signed most of the checks for Arpanet's development": > The goal was to exploit new computer technologies to meet the needs of military command and control against nuclear threats, achieve survivable control of US nuclear forces, and improve military tactical and management decision making.

I love me some internet, but would I trade it for the possible annihilation of humankind? I'm being facetious, but only slightly; the fact that we wouldn't end up wiping humanity from the face of the earth was far from evident at the time (and still looms).

You can probably run a calculation on how many lives military tech has saved (GPS, drones, evac helicopters), and it may come out as a net benefit, but I'm not sure you'd be able to convince an Afghani that his family's lives were worth an incremental technology improvement.

I choose to believe that we are capable of taking on large experimental projects without them being connected to aggression.

I'm sorry, but you're disregarding even the most rudimentary rigor in coming to these conclusions.

Survivability is exactly what it sounds like. It isn't some conspiracy-theory euphemism for the "annihilation of humankind." It's a key component of MAD and is the one and only reason the Soviets didn't destroy the Western world from Cuba. This is well-documented.

An Afghani is a unit of currency and has neither convictions nor family. I wouldn't be so pedantic usually, but since your very point seems to be the alleged dehumanization of such people, it seemed appropriate to point out that maybe we shouldn't refer to people as inanimate objects.

As far as a civilian Afghan family's lives? That's what the DoD is trying to protect. Explain to me why you think more civilians should die, rather than developing better technology to help distinguish them.

The Reuters journalists in the famous "Collateral Murder" video should not have been killed. I suspect you and I are in agreement on that. What I absolutely fail to comprehend is how you seem to think Google et al. have a moral obligation not to help keep that from happening again.

I want you to watch hundreds of hours of drone videos, and rewatch the Collateral Murder video and determine if you could decide if those were or weren't journalists.

I've watched thousands upon thousands of hours of drone video. Not sure what point you're trying to make.

The simplest way to keep that from happening again is to prevent wars like Afghanistan from happening again. Technology that makes it easier for the DOD to justify a war (by reducing civilian casualties) makes war more likely. Therefore, be refusing to build this technology, you help make war less likely.

I personally find this line of reasoning quite compelling. It's pretty clear that precision guided bombs, drones, body armor, and other technologies designed to save lives in war have also made war much more politically palatable for the DOD.

I'd love to have avoided the war in Afghanistan, it's a horrible quagmire with no end in sight. But let's not forget the western world was perfectly happy to let the Taliban get on with whatever they wanted to get on with, right up until they conspired with an international terrorist organisation operating from their territory with their support and blessing, to murder 2,977 people in New York.

Until you can come up with a viable, demonstrably effective non-military approach to eliminating threats like that, we will continue to need a military capability. I speak as a Brit, about the wider 'we'. British troops are operating in Afghanistan right now, some of them are even Muslims. We're standing by the US, yet we have Americans here advocating undermining your own military, putting US and foreign services lives in greater danger, so they can feel a smug sense of moral superiority while sipping their skinny lattes in a nice comfortable office, just like the ones incinerated in New York in 2001.

Wars are horrible messy affairs. Innocent people suffer. It sucks. But advocating pretending threats don't exist and it's not our problem without addressing the actual issues is an utter abrogation of moral responsibility. Western militaries have gone to huge lengths to improve intelligence gathering techniques and achieve more precise targeting, massively reducing civilian casualties and blue-on-blue incidents. Surely supporting such technologies and programmes is worthwhile?

> they conspired with an international terrorist organisation operating from their territory with their support and blessing

It's not clear that they conspired [0], though I suppose you could call them an accessory after the fact for refusing to extradite bin Laden.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Responsibility_for_the_Septemb...

Al Qaeda had already mounted and claimed multiple attacks on the US, and even the World Trade Center for years before 9/11 and the Taliban continued to provide support and protection to the group and explicitly endorsed their activities throughout. They were clearly culpable.

Your argument is that more civilians should die so that war is less likely.

That's not only morally repugnant on its face, it's flatly untrue. Greater collateral damage has rarely if ever prevented war. Past wars with high collateral damage have been longer, costlier, and more frequent than they are today.

Even if your utilitarian analysis were stomachably close to moral (it's not), it would still fail any sort of empirical test.

Wouldn't an increase to the survivability of the command-and-control structure of the US nuclear forces mean that it would be harder for another power to think they could succeed in a nuclear attack on the US? Wouldn't that tend to decrease the likelihood of war?

Only if strategic balance is maintained. Otherwise there is a huge incentive for the stronger party to strike and win all

The MAD equilibrium is very fragile!

That's not because the military technology was intrinsically good though, but rather a side effect of the massive budgets that governments will give towards military R&D.

If the government threw just as much money into civilian research, we'd likely get just as much good, without finding more efficient ways to kill each other.

For instance, Australia has CSIRO [1], which is sort of like DARPA, but without the military bent. They've managed to invent all sorts of cool new stuff.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSIRO

And the US has the NSF, while Australia also has DSTO...

(I agree though that public civilian R&D funding is woeful)

> If the government threw just as much money into civilian research, we'd likely get just as much good, without finding more efficient ways to kill each other.

Do I understand correctly, then, that if we continue throwing that money into military research, we not only gain the same civilian benefits, but also prevent the occurrence wherein someone else finds an efficient way to kill us before we find an efficient way to defend ourselves from it?

Intel corporation is still larger than DARPA and DARPA is much more diffuse. The impact shouldn't be that great.

A better comparison would be Intel Research and DARPA or Intel and the whole DOD. By either of those measures the military budget is much bigger.

A lot of economic growth also came out of World War II, but this isn't something we want to repeat.

I'd beg to differ with this; it made the US a superpower because it completely decimated everyone else. Broken window fallacy-- Europe would have continued being more of a world producer if not for the lost lives, scientists, and manufacturing which could have more quickly made more advances. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_broken_window)

The US became the largest economic power in the world around the 1880s or 1890s. At that time in Europe, Italy and Germany had just recently become unified countries (both in 1871, in fact), and the only major European conflicts since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 were the peripheral Crimean War and a series of short (less than a year), decisive wars related to the unifications of Germany and Italy.

While the US is conventionally excluded from great power analysis (the preceding form of superpower analysis) due to its noninvolvement in European affairs, it was unquestionably one of the major economic engines of the world in the era before WWI.

First time I have heard the broken window thing used like that, on that scale ... but it might work!

Yea, all we need to so is kill off tens of millions of the most able people in the developed worlds to spur economic growth.

It just doesn't work like that. WWII was value destruction at a massive scale. All that industry could have been building industry and we'd have had the 50's and 60's a decade earlier but not just for the US.

To be fair I read the broken-window comment so as so mean exactly what you said? A lot of broken windows in Europe, so people there were less keen on keeping things intact and more likely to litter and ... stuff.

I don't think the winner matters; if the US had lost, economic growth would have resulted anyway, just elsewhere.

don't forget ARPANET, which later evolved to a little something we call the internet.

I see the temptation in avoiding military contracts, but "optics" aside, it's not all bad.

that said we probably shouldn't give the armies too many autonomous killer-bots. I mean it would almost definitely drive some cool technologies being developed for eventual civilian use that would be very difficult to fund privately..but also SkyNet..

basically, I agree with everything you just said, but wanted to elaborate a bit further :)

Cute comments about SkyNet aside, real people are killed every day in military conflicts around the world, often by US weapons.

It’s grotesque to me to muse about the cool tech we could get at the expense of other people’s lives.

on the other hand, I'm fairly sure that the knowledge spreading enabled by the internet has (indirectly) saved quite a few lives too!

Military technology doesn't necessarily mean "tech to kill". it could also be tech to save (from natural disasters, horrors induced by already-existing-weapons, etc.)

i agree that we should avoid developing tech that has the exclusive intent of killing, which is what I was trying to imply with my cute SkyNet comment.

edit to clarify: for any given military tech, one needs to consider the possible ramifications. If a given technology is deemed benign, I see no harm in developing it, even if it is for the military. on the other hand, if it has a big potential for destruction, it's not worth developing it for the military, even if it does come with the upside of enabling cool tech to be developed. autonomous killbots is a perfect example, which would probably advance the robotics field at a accelerated rate, but it provides such a huge potential for destruction that it's simply not worth it.

Not seeing the harm and there being no harm are two very different things.

The latest episode of Citations Needed Podcast (http://citationpod.com/) does a good short review of some particularly agregious situations in which the US military bombs countries then the same or related parties praise themselves for their humanitarian response to the aftermath.

Worse, when you bomb a country, for example, it should be obvious that this sets back all of humanity to some degree. Apparently, it’s not obvious. But Earth and humanity are systems, and this analogy is such that we can look at any other system and find the same outcome. Damage one part, and effects will be felt in the others; often not at simultaneously. Some parts will be stimulated only to be depleted later (like the immune systems in our bodies) and require attention. The US is experiencing this sort of reversal right now, though some are in denial or haven’t caught on to that yet.

i mean, sure, but that's hardly unique to military contracts though, is it?

look at self-driving cars for example. we had that uber-crash recently, that cost a woman her life. does this show us that tech development in the private sector is obviously bad?

it's a little more case by case than that. which is why, as op so nicely put it, "companies need to take a balanced look".

You’re not counting the true cost here. It’s impossible to count.

The true cost would have to entail proportions of the human, social, monetary, and environmental investments in self-driving technology. Manufacturing labor abuse in China and other low-wage hardware sources, the labor issues at Tesla, the abuse scandals, including side effects and aftermath at Uber, techsploitation at large, raising rents in tech hub cities like Bay Area, SF, NYC, associated family separations, including homelessness and related social program ceilings, taxes not paid by these giant corporations fueling the “innovation”, privacy invasions by Google, of which the extents will never be known.

It’s amazing how limited tech workers tend to be when it comes to performing systemic analysis at the societal level.

At the end of the day, millions of people would have more security and stability and happiness in their lives without this pace of technological discovery. At the end of the day, there are some things that should take a higher priority. I’ll assert mutual dignity is one of them.

I disagree with your sentiment. While I appreciate the technology that military investment has given us, I’d trade it all to get back the lives lost by the other technology the military has developed.

If the source is looked at as a labor movement it would be a deeply atypical example of the bloc. Normally labor movements are all about guaranteeing good conditions and pay but such efforts have historically received chilly receptions despite obvious grounds for appealing to them like long hours and poor work-life balance. They appear to generally desire a competitive workforce and to reap the benefits of success. There are elements of that in other professions with guilds but those have operated in at times naked self-interest. It isn't even quite 'organized' labor per say - at least not yet. Even Free Software fundamentalists haven't signed on charters refusing to work with proprietary software for instance.

Instead ethics are what finally seem to have pushed tech workers to unify against their employer's raw immediate financial interests in spite of often having shares to benefit from them. It doesn't even seem to map consistently to either 'mainstream' or 'geek' ethics perfectly either although growing disillusionment with the government appears to be part of it.

I suppose the tech political mainstream also can be considered 'misfit' in other ways not fitting entirely in the typical left or right bounds.

It’s deeply atypical of the US labor movement because the Taft-Hartley act was specifically designed to curb union power and, correspondingly, class consciousness and class solidarity. This combined with the vicious (not to mention deeply anti-Semitic) purge of socialists and communists was intended to narrowly circumscribe what union membership meant and furthered.[0] It’s far different in Europe, where labor unions are much more expressly engaged with the formation of political parties that serve their interests[1]

If tech workers are waking up to their class position as labor, learning the power inherent in collective action, refusing to help further US imperialism, that’s something to be celebrated. And if anything, it’s a brilliant recognition of their position relative to other laborers (highly paid and benefitted), that they first use their power for the sake of ethics before pursuing their self-interest.

[0] https://jacobinmag.com/2017/12/taft-hartley-unions-right-to-...

[1] It’s a bit hard to explain in an HN post, but essentially, the way that labor-oriented political parties are constituted and have their priorities decided in the US is backwards from those in Europe (top-down vs bottom-up). Seth Ackerman outlines this in this podcast episode, if you have time to listen:


> the way that labor-oriented political parties are constituted and have their priorities decided in the US is backwards from those in Europe (top-down vs bottom-up)

I don't believe the proposition that parties in Europe have their priorities decided in a bottom-up manner. And the problem with having labor unions that are not-quite political parties is that you'll end up with unions which are concerned by issue far of from the concerns of the workers, which then tend to not suscribe

Not a chance. Like the comment below mentions, Snowden probable expected there were others like him. Nope. Not a one. Very few people have that sort of conviction.

But mainly, technical work is just different in nature. It’s a lot more competitive and the hierarchy is more fluid. There’s not an obvious floor like there is with factory workers, where there are a few managers and administrators for hundreds of workers. And the work is almost never manual. Technical workers are also constantly concerned with implementation and that sh were their attention goes. I don’t ever see this actually happening.

Actually, lots of people have that conviction. Over a thousand people inside Google signed on against the company’s collaboration with the military, there was all kinds of internal outcry and contention at internal forums, they pushed strongly back against executives bald-faced lies. It already happened:


And here’s the thing about labor struggle: the reason why Capital owners try to quash it before it gets started is because it’s transformative. Once people see the power they have when they act collectively, what really turns the wheels at work and in society, they’re changed.

> Once people see the power they have when they act collectively

Also, once people see things under the facade, such as

> “Letting you ask that question is the voice that you have. Very few companies would allow you to do that.”

You’re replying to a devout Marxist. This is not a debate over the value of labor movements.

There seems to be a reason the labor movement has squandered since the rise of the Military Industrial Complex, and what’s what I’m speaking to.

> If the source is looked at a labor movement it would be a deeply atypical example of the bloc.

I hesitate to be certain of where the typo is in your thesis here so I’m not exactly sure of your point. But, I think I do disagree with at least some of what you’re saying.

Tech workers have not unified against anything but the lower class. As long as rents are soaring in every tech hub at a faster rate than anywhere else, while the tech workers’ servants are shoved out of their neighborhoods, you remain hopelessly out of touch. Not even in the ballpark, or planet for that matter.

I can imagine some argument that tech workers have stood up against some internet mischief somewhere; give me a break. You have no idea what that looks like if this is your claim. A

The Googler thingy a few months ago? Let us understand what that was. These employees were embarrassed, ashamed. They were acting out of virtue, pride, shame, not conviction. The difference will be lost on someone not up to speed with the differences, though they are vast...

Compare your Googlers with Edward Snowden. US tech workers have done nothing but let him down. He has single-handedly accomplished and sacrificed more than all other US tech workers combined and then some. Unified? I’m not seeing it.

And now I will defend the Free Software movement, though I’m not sure it’s useful to assume there’s any need. Your criticism of the Free Software movement exemplifies you know not even the exact first thing about activism; it truly is always this: The systemic impossibilities of exiting the system, especially in the name of countering it. All it takes is to consider a step in another’s shoes to realize the aloofness illustrated by your accusation. To articulate such a an accusation is to expose your failure to have even lent a visit to consideration of the matter. Please realize my elaboration is not just me rubbing it in. There’s a tradition (now, because it is fairly recent) of first-world activists confronting this realization of hypocrisy-reversal, if you will. Usually one will keep it to themselves, a result of shame.

That out of the way, the Free Software movement absolutely has the high road here. It’s simply congruent with critical discourse through the (almost) centuries. The standards of Free Software are transparent and accessible, systemically thorough, and community oriented to the teeth, precisely as they should be. To suggest your ‘general will to ethics’ has achieved squat is one thing, but you would do best to keep Free Software out of it.

They aren't unified against the lower classes - more apathetic to their impact at worst. They don't rent or buy out of a desire to screw over those who can't afford it but because it is a good deal for them. Palo Alto was once the cheaper alternative in the start up space. Once. And they aren't unique in this at all. Even artists and same-sex couples have had gentrifying impacts on neighborhoods. Even if they indirectly drive out old residents it would be rightfully regarded as insane homophobia to suggest it is the result of some gay agenda instead of the natural results of living their lives. The uncomfortable fact is everyone in the same position (better off but not so good to grab the premium) does it and one can't simply keep communities in stasis regardless of what measures are taken.

That wasn't a criticism of free software at all just a note that it hasn't materialized into any sort of career enforcement or fencing in contrast to existing professional movements and demands. Free software is for the software's sake more than levers of power. It shouldn't be expected to really in the same sense that one wouldn't expect to see doctors kidnapping unvaccinated children to immunize them - even if it would technically help with the problem it misses the primary purpose and causes other issues.

I was trying to detach my analysis from my own viewpoints for concern of tooting my own horn.

I had considered pride and exceptionalism as motivations but decided not to delve into them as too speculative and spinny in the same sense of "Did he become a firefighter to impress women, for the pension, or desire to save lives." The why is ironically immediately irrelevant when it comes to society - they are just glad to have someone fighting fires. The relevance only comes in when trying to calibrate numbers.

They are absolutely unified against the lower classes. Your argument is simply that they don’t realize that, and I agree. It appears they don’t realize much at all in terms of social concern.

Let’s take a minimally critical look at Palo Alto’s history. Simply enough, if there was any tide of social consideration amongst these tech communities, Palo Alto, Bay Area, etc. would not have turned into the dystopia it now is. There would be less wealth and more humanity. Theee’s nothing complicated about this unless you insist on disbelief.

The “start-up space” is a misnomer of progressivism.

“Start-ups” are technocratic race-to-the-bottom capitalist entities; precisely the enemy of social concern since the advent of social concern. There’s nothing in Karl Marx’s works that does not apply to start-ups. You’d do best to just call them businesses because this term “start-up” apparently has an addictive element that causes some people’s eyes to glaze over giving a sense of unmitigated positivity. And maybe the hope is positive for themselves but not for others, and that is the problem.

> The Googler thingy a few months ago? Let us understand what that was.

This is very recent: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17682348

> “Everyone’s access to documents got turned off, and is being turned on [on a] document-by-document basis,” said one source. “There’s been total radio silence from leadership, which is making a lot of people upset and scared. … Our internal meme site and Google Plus are full of talk, and people are a.n.g.r.y.”

I wouldn't know if that is true, but on HN, such stories seemed to mostly plummet off the front page, with no commentary by Googlers. It's pretty hard to know what people who can't talk freely are thinking.

Though I agree that there isn't likely to be an equivalent to Snowden's "the American people have a right to know about this so they can make decisions", that is, other than on a personal level.

But let's first and foremost understand that we don't know what either of this "was" or "is", because that involves a whole lot of people, most of whom we haven't heard of, much less candidly. The factuality of that is worth more than speculation and generalization. It does say something in and of itself, something that is not good, but it's still not a canvas onto which we can just draw things, because they cannot or won't protest and nothing can be verified.

> Compare your Googlers with Edward Snowden.

The average Googler is a fiction. There are only the actual people.

There were a few comments by Googlers in an article on the same topic but posted separately.

When I asked a Googler, who was angry at the accusation that they don't care about the China story, whether or not they would protest against this or threaten to leave, there was 0 response. I assume this would be similar for most Googlers.

Of course they are "a.n.g.r.y." but it seems that this is the extend they are willing to go. Why protest when you can just post on the internal meme board?

Ok a few weeks ago. That’s what I meant. It registers as nothing to me.

You’re right. We haven’t heard. And until we do, we have every reason in the world to doubt it. Google is an utterly dystopian black box surveillance machine and these people have no clue.

This is so far from Marxist class consciousness it’s a joke. Means nothing and will accomplish nothing. This is isn’t even student body politics. They know not the first thing about community or conviction on the level of systemic worker oppression. And you don’t know what conviction is.

Don’t get your point about average Googlers. I didn’t use that phrase.

I really recommend everyone here look at Boots Riley’s new film ‘Sorry To Bother You’.

It's pretty gross how the author alluded to IBM's involvement on the allied side in WWII but neglects to mention the nature of those contracts: the management of concentration camps on both sides.

That was what I thought of immediately. https://www.scottishdocinstitute.com/films/nae-pasaran-featu...

'People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.'


I think the sentiment here is roughly consistent with Orwell's views, but he probably never said these exact words:


Though that wasn't his quote, he says something broadly similar about an extreme form of pacifism where all fighting is intolerable. It doesn't really apply here as it's hard to argue that our safety is really threatened if the US wasn't involved in various wars.

If this satisfies you better then: "Those who 'abjure' violence can do so only because others are committing violence on their behalf."

I suppose the problem with taking a position that says 'I'm not going to work for the military because I disagree with current US foreign policy' is that if/when an existential threat does arise the US might find itself far behind its foe, no?

When you quote someone, it's best to do it accurately.

>that if/when an existential threat does arise the US might find itself far behind its foe, no?

No, or unlikely. Any foreseeable threat is mutually assured destruction, and someone would need to discover a way to disable all nukes they don't control simultaneously for the US to be behind their for. Not only does that seem implausible, actively pursuing the technology would likely cause war.

Who's to say your opponent will always be sane, or have something to lose? It's remarkably blasé to just say meh, MAD. Also there are many threats that could significantly degrade the US without destroying it, for example anti-satellite, cyber, to name a couple of obvious examples.

Nothing you've mentioned changes the fact that every truly existential threat ends up being mutually assured destruction. It's true even with desperate, insane foes that try a non nuclear attack first.

I think thats a bit far fetched... Pacifism because of the reasons you just described(I'm not going to work for the military because I disagree with current US foreign policy) is a perfectly valid stance. The problem could only arise if everybody was on the same side and taking the same action. That is highly unlikely in a pluralistic society. The software development community is not a monolithic homogeneus block.

This article, and some comments, assume that certain political stance is shared between all the tech workers. Meanwhile, I know quite a lot of people in tech of many different countries who would be enthusiastic to work for the military, and would gladly accept lower salaries for the honor.

>I know quite a lot of people in tech of many different countries who would be enthusiastic to work for the military, and would gladly accept lower salaries for the honor.

Their respective militaries, or the American military?

Their respective - which includes american as well.

If there is a major war, there will be no dilemma. The country with the best tech will win, the latter will suffer in a way we can not predict.

It is amusing to read people's opinion on the military yet work for Google, Facebook, Twitter etc... Who put profits above everything else, without concern for privacy, security or their users. While the US military isn't a beacon of ethics, it has done far more good for our country than any tech company.

This is a subtle argument that tech firms who enable the military are profit mongers. That is a serious accusation, completely non-empathetic, coming from someone with experience that merely grants him an overview of the foreign-affairs landscape, and the military's role in that.

One 1930s essay to read before creating war-focused technology: "War Is A Racket By Marine Major General Smedley Butler" https://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/warisaracket.html "WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small "inside" group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes. ... For a great many years, as a soldier, I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not until I retired to civil life did I fully realize it. Now that I see the international war clouds gathering, as they are today, I must face it and speak out. ..."

People in tech tend to take extreme positions in the debate about supplying tech to the military. But the extreme positions -- whether they be pacifist and assume all military engagement is bad, or militarist and stick to "my country right or wrong" -- ignore the real issues.

Even the author seems to present a false dichotomy: either tech is benevolent to society or it is driven entirely by the profit motive. Tech can have several motives at once, and one of them may include ensuring the national security of the country that allows large tech companies to operate smoothly and peacefully in a relatively uncorrupt and democratic society.

Does tech make money off of defense? Of course. That should come as news to no one. The DoD is the Fortune 1, the largest customer in the world. There's nothing wrong with selling to them per se. And there's nothing inherently wrong with being "compliant", even though the author seems to consider that a fault.[0][1] We should assume that all major tech companies are fully compliant. The exist in a matrix of laws they must obey.

One of the important questions we should be asking is: Do we want the US defense establishment to run on good, modern tech or crappy, outdated tech? Large sections of it still run on VAX and Cobol, and they will for the foreseeable future.

It's my personal belief that society is engaged in a global asymmetric war against militant groups, in a technological context where individual actors have access to more and more powerful weapons of destruction. I would hope that the organizations in charge of defending civilians would have the best technology at their disposal to detect and prevent attacks.

It's also clear that Western liberal society in particular is under attack by hostile state actors intent on destabilizing the EU and the US democratic system. The field of battle is online, and if you don't have good tech in that fight, you lose.

I'm not saying the US military is right all the time, or undeserving of criticism. But I would ask people who think good technology should not be supplied to the US military: what outcome do you want? Have you considered the scenario where West liberal democracy loses, and we replace the imperfect system we have with a much worse, authoritarian system without democratic feedback loops. Because that's the endgame if we lose, and we lose without good tech.

[0] "Major companies had complied with—and profited from—government demands for unwarranted data collection."

[1] "...tech companies will be forced to choose whether they can feasibly continue to preach the values of liberal-minded innovation and independence from big government while serving as its well-paid and compliant partners."

This subject quite simply comes down to people wanting to express personal politics in the office and forming collectives or trends around a given opinion.

(I am not saying anything for or against the politics motive.)

By calling it "personal politics," you are saying something against it. Nobody should invent some subjective opinion and then bring it in to the workplace, but it seems fine to expect doctors to refuse kickbacks from drug reps, or for soldiers to decline to carry out war crimes, or for civil engineers to refuse to sign off on a cheap blueprint that will save a lot of money but probably collapse. The debate is about what "professional ethics" means for software development.

> By calling it "personal politics," you are saying something against it.

I am being objective. If the political opinion was not formulated by senior leadership and passed down through management then it is not likely, at least at the time of expression, the politics of the organization. That said, it is personal politics.

Ethics is not defined by the industry. Ethics is quite literally perceptions of right or wrong in accordance with organizationally defined rules. Right and wrong where rules are either not available or not defined is instead the more generalized term morality. In the example of Google employees' boycott of the drone contract the political action was a moral judgement that graduated to an ethic once senior leadership made a decision.


> the more generalized term morality

Applied ethics, are what most people mean when talking about Ethics. They are industry specific and defined by the industry. Normative ethics are near equivalent to morality. Meta-ethics are what Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson like to argue about.

Rules are defined by industry. Applied ethics, or commonly used in the adjective form ethical, applies to the directness of a decision point to the governing rule and perceptions or right/wrong. Ethics are evaluated the same even when the rules change. Likewise ethics are violated for similar reasons regardless of industry.

This is very simple for most professions that are defined by licensing or certifications which require conformance to a code of ethics. Ethics in law are not dissimilar from ethics in medicine. In software there is no commonly accepted code of ethics. Instead there are "terms and conditions" and "employment agreements", which typically do not isolate ethical standards to the software profession.

nsnick 8 months ago [flagged]

Not expressing an opinion against immoral things is also a political act. You are saying that profits should come before everything else.

Please don't take HN threads further into generic ideological arguments. By the time the discussion gets this generic, there's nothing left but flamewar. And it's always the same.

Also, re "you are saying", there's an HN guideline that asks you not to argue this way: "Please respond to the strongest plausible interpretation of what someone says, not a weaker one that's easier to criticize." That's because arguing this way consistently leads to more boring comments, and it's easy enough not to do if you remember the rule.


My statement very directly refutes the assertion that they are "bringing politics into the office", when in fact politics are already there.

Summarizing arguments is necessary when people obfuscate the true argument they are making. Dog whistles are a great example of this. If you can't all an argument out for what it is, you can't refute it at all.

When you 'call out' an argument that no one was actually making, you're lowering discussion quality by quite a bit. Making it personal ("you are saying $stupid-offensive-thing") doubles the damage. That's why we have that guideline, so please follow it.

> You are saying that profits should come before everything else.

I very deliberately expressed no opinion in that regard.

Not expressing an opinion within a moral argument is political only with regards for the motive of inaction. Taken to a greater extreme people are not necessarily expressing politics by not agreeing with your opinion.

Maybe some people just support the American military for moral reasons.


mmirate 8 months ago [flagged]

Independently of the train-of-thought of who you replied-to...

Profits should indeed come before everything else.

The previous sentence isn't a statement of politics, it's a statement of fact, and the only thing that can make it false is post-scarcity.

From an essay I wrote in 2010: https://www.pdfernhout.net/recognizing-irony-is-a-key-to-tra...

Recognizing irony is key to transcending militarism

Military robots like drones are ironic because they are created essentially to force humans to work like robots in an industrialized social order. Why not just create industrial robots to do the work instead?

Nuclear weapons are ironic because they are about using space age systems to fight over oil and land. Why not just use advanced materials as found in nuclear missiles to make renewable energy sources (like windmills or solar panels) to replace oil, or why not use rocketry to move into space by building space habitats for more land?

Biological weapons like genetically-engineered plagues are ironic because they are about using advanced life-altering biotechnology to fight over which old-fashioned humans get to occupy the planet. Why not just use advanced biotech to let people pick their skin color, or to create living arkologies and agricultural abundance for everyone everywhere?

These militaristic socio-economic ironies would be hilarious if they were not so deadly serious. ...

Likewise, even United States three-letter agencies like the NSA and the CIA, as well as their foreign counterparts, are becoming ironic institutions in many ways. Despite probably having more computing power per square foot than any other place in the world, they seem not to have thought much about the implications of all that computer power and organized information to transform the world into a place of abundance for all. Cheap computing makes possible just about cheap everything else, as does the ability to make better designs through shared computing. ...

There is a fundamental mismatch between 21st century reality and 20th century security thinking. Those "security" agencies are using those tools of abundance, cooperation, and sharing mainly from a mindset of scarcity, competition, and secrecy. Given the power of 21st century technology as an amplifier (including as weapons of mass destruction), a scarcity-based approach to using such technology ultimately is just making us all insecure. Such powerful technologies of abundance, designed, organized, and used from a mindset of scarcity could well ironically doom us all whether through military robots, nukes, plagues, propaganda, or whatever else... Or alternatively, as Bucky Fuller and others have suggested, we could use such technologies to build a world that is abundant and secure for all.

So, while in the past, we had "nothing to fear but fear itself", the thing to fear these days is ironically ... irony. :-) ...

The big problem is that all these new war machines and the surrounding infrastructure are created with the tools of abundance. The irony is that these tools of abundance are being wielded by people still obsessed with fighting over scarcity. So, the scarcity-based political mindset driving the military uses the technologies of abundance to create artificial scarcity. That is a tremendously deep irony that remains so far unappreciated by the mainstream.

We the people need to redefine security in a sustainable and resilient way. Much current US military doctrine is based around unilateral security ("I'm safe because you are nervous") and extrinsic security ("I'm safe despite long supply lines because I have a bunch of soldiers to defend them"), which both lead to expensive arms races. We need as a society to move to other paradigms like Morton Deutsch's mutual security ("We're all looking out for each other's safety") and Amory Lovin's intrinsic security ("Our redundant decentralized local systems can take a lot of pounding whether from storm, earthquake, or bombs and would still would keep working"). [See for example the book "Brittle Power"] ...

Still, we must accept that there is nothing wrong with wanting some security. The issue is how we go about it in a non-ironic way that works for everyone. ...

It's not a "dilemma", you either support violence or you oppose it.

All this hemming and hawing because people want to be polite and keep their jobs is silly, just be honest with yourself about your worldview.

Everyone has their price..

Maybe so, but please don't post unsubstantive comments here.

And its not restricted to tech, everything can be used for good or bad so invariably everything could have a military application in the right situation. Perhaps a better argument would be, should innovation and creativity be banned to avoid its use in Military applications? Still one thing I learned from a psychology study, is we have longer lasting memories if they were fearful, perhaps its a survival trait of the brain, which probably means we should all smoke pot, get paranoid and then go to school as what we learn will stay fresh in the memory for longer.

If history is a guide, the research will go on and these protest movements will have only a superficial effect. Just compare Draper Laboratories to Lincoln Labs. Both were MIT-owned partnerships focused on military research. MIT divested of Draper and it was spun off on its own during Vietnam, while they still hold their stake in Lincoln today. Why the difference? Because Draper is in downtown Cambridge, where students could easily protest, and Lincoln is way off in the Boston suburbs. In any case, both labs continue to carry out military research and maintain very close relationships with MIT and its graduates. As long as the military continues to pay well, researchers and tech specialists will continue to work for them.

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