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Tech Workers Now Want to Know: What Are We Building This For? (nytimes.com)
417 points by siscia 9 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 339 comments





At least to some extent, this is a "Hegelian pendulum."

In the beginning there where black suited corporate drones. They coded black and white "calculation solutions" for the enterprising enterprise.

Then came colour. Gates wanted cheap computers on every desk. Jobs wanted colour computers for every artist. Mission. Meaning. This worked better, especially if you needed employees to invent things. Can't invent the iPhone wearing a suit writing business requiremnt compendiums.

Startups hired world changers and made a customer and emloyee happiness index. Google wrote "Don't be evil" on a chalkboard. Gmail was better than outlook. All was good.

Then some tension surfaced. Advertisers thought they would be happier tracking users. Users thought this was creepy. Making generals happy did not make employees happy. Someone erased "don't be evil" from the blackboard.

Back to square one.

Google (and "SV") have spent 2 decades telling everyone about their open and selfless ideologies. People bought it. They went to work for Google instead of a bank. Now, they use euphemisms and secrecy to avoid saying stuff that sounds bad.

Btw... It's interesting how iconic "don't be evil" was as a slogan. They couldn't live up to it, but that doesn't mean it didn't impact.


>Google (and "SV") have spent 2 decades telling everyone about their open and selfless ideologies. People bought it. They went to work for Google instead of a bank...

Let's inject a little honesty into this discussion. People didn't flock to google et al in droves because of google's selfless ideology. That was coincidental.

People flocked to google because they wanted to get rich. Especially in the early days when google touted their "don't be evil" philosophy.

For the techies going to work for google, it was never about not being evil. It was about getting rich.

We, as technologists, certainly knew and understood the dangers of companies like Facebook and Google from early on. (Again, if we're being honest, that understanding of the danger is one reason many of us don't even have a facebook.) But we compartmentalize. What we would put on our own home systems rarely reflects what we would put on work systems if someone is paying us enough money. What we would develop in hobby time is, again, very different than what we would develop if someone is paying us a lot of money.

I get it. We have to feed our families. I'm not faulting anyone. I'm just saying that it's a bit revisionist to put forth the "google/facebook/whoever tricked us into working for them" narrative. Most of us understood what google and facebook were going in.


At the time I joined Google, I wouldn't have chosen to work on Wall Street or for Microsoft, but Google seemed very safe from an ethical point of view. Ads were just text links and none of the things people complain about had happened yet. (I also thought I was joining too late to make much from stock options and was... wrong about that, though it took a while.)

Google left China after I joined. What other company would have done that? It still seemed way better than average.

This idea that of course we all knew what would happen over the next decade is revisionist history via mood affiliation that has no factual basis.


But Google left China because the Chinese government wouldn't let them operate in a way that was profitable. It had nothing to do with ethics if you read beyond the PR speak.

I don't know where you got that from. They got blocked and hacked.

Also, there are ethical considerations in everything. They don't disappear when profit is involved.


good try but.. the Google'rs originally wanted to "index the worlds information" .. very, very smart engineers are motivated by that alone. They were competitive and highly-achieving coders from Berkeley-Stanford-MIT-CalTech-thatOtherOneIForget in an elite team environment.. There were ten other well-funded companies trying to be search engines with lots of publicity.. Google outperformed them..

In hindsight, after the money with so many zeroes, it is tempting to rewrite history, but this short "it was the money" doesnt tell the story


That techies were motivated by riches is not hindsight.

Google, pre-ipo, sucked in so much intellectual capital that other startups, my own included, were having trouble getting access to the elite techies at prices we could afford. Their salaries were well above market, and their options were clearly going to be worth more than everyone else' at the time.

And don't even get me started on Facebook. That one of facebook's early investors was the VC wing of the CIA was an open secret. Yet techies still flocked to them for the big paychecks and the options.

And good for those guys. For the vast majority of them, it worked out REALLY well. I don't fault them for any of it.

I just think that you're putting on rose colored glasses here. It was clear long before Google IPO'd, that there was a lot of money to be made. (That much was even clear before keyword auctions as a matter of fact.) And everyone wanted to be in on it. Everyone still wants to get in on the hot startups. Whether those startups are profitable or not. That's just the nature of this business.

Now again, I'm not complaining. That's just how the tech startup industry works. I get that. My issue is with everyone trying to turn it all around and act like a giant gold rush never blinded everyone. As if all those techies flocked to SV because it was all just about making the world a better place. That's just not true.


This isn't an all-in-one or all-out thing. Of course money was a consideration.

But, Google (and sv 2.0 generally) did both present and to an extent, live up to a certain ethic. Not perfectly, not without some hypocrisy but they did have an ethic. The sold it to their employees (and others).

Today, they have trouble living up to it. People got disillusioned or upset. That is what we're talking about it.

I agree that these people joined a company, not a monestary. But, 10 years ago working at Google was easier to be proud of, on an ethical/esthetic level.


Why do people want to try and summarize the motivation of why every person who worked for Goggle to a single cause? We all know that people are different and the each person is motivated by multiple things. People went to work for Goggle because of all the things that are being discussed here and more.

We all want different things. Those who went to work not to be evil were duped from the start or lying to themselves as we all know money is the root...

Google had a very reasonable money printing machine as its core business model: Search Ads.

* You tell Google what you are looking for.

* Google returns a handful of ads, alongside world-class organic search results.

* Merchants bid to have their ads returned for specific search intents.

None of this requires the 24/7 surveillance machine Google has ended up building.


Not true. Ad words is bigger. And to do that, they need to know as much about what you want or what you could want in order to deliver a nice juicy targeted ad.

Advertisers can now target not just classes of people, but in fact target specific people, and they'll pay a premium for that.


That sounds like the original product has morphed into something more invasive than it was in Google's early years.

Could Google have kept making enough profit if they had stuck to the original plan?


I don't know about you. But if I can get riches at Google, I can get riches at Facebook, Apple or Microsoft too. The reason I would have chosen Google, and the reason I entrusted Google with all my personal information in the first place, was knowing they had that slogan.

I just couldn't imagine they'd ever erase it... Now who is left? I guess I'm waiting for the Internet Archive to turn evil...


The Internet Archive is a non-profit which in and of itself provides it with freedom to pursue unselfish ends. As long as decent people remain at the helm, the only acceptable options for it and similar non-profits at critical times would be to downsize or close, but never to repurpose the resources they've been entrusted with toward selfish and evil ends that will bring them loads more money.

For public companies beholden to greedy, money-focused shareholders, it's a different story. I don't know that they can help to be anything BUT selfish and probably evil. "Don't be evil" can only be a secondary directive to these beasts, and one to be discarded when it gets in the way of the primary directive of making as much money as possible. For these corporations, if being "good" ever requires "making less money than legally possible", they won't be able to stay good for long.


I think it’s a perfectly valid strategy for a corporation to make less money now for more money in the future, but apparently all investors disagree?

I still like Google. I never worked there, but "cataloging the world's information and making it available for free" is still great. It's complicated yes, but Google — more than any other tech company — has empowered me to do the things I care about. Mainly by making information easy to find.

> cataloging the world's information and making it available for free

What does the mission of archive.org have to do with Google?


Or like, the mission of any academic library for that matter? Historically, Google owes its entire existence to an NSF grant that required heavy collaboration with Stanford Libraries, which is why academia to this day holds certain privileges at Google (free GSuite via memorandum of understanding, etc).

I'd even argue that working at a library contributes substantially more to indexing the world's information, since libraries usually have one of a kind items in their cataloguing backlog that provide huge insights. As an example, I once met someone at a vintage computing festival who was writing an ENIAC simulator using the original specifications housed at UPenn. Unfortunately, he was having quite a bit of difficulty obtaining example programs to run on his simulator, not because programs didn't exist, but most likely because they were backlogged at UPenn and weren't being added to the library's catalog (i.e., so-called "hidden collections").

There are many ways to work on similar efforts without being at a tech company, but for better or worse the pay isn't remotely as good.


For that matter, what did AltaVista and Yahoo's index have to do with Google? And how does DDG relate now? It's a good discussion.

Google contribution is algorithmic ranking, in my opinion, which amounts to an ongoing war / immune response with SEO and huge stakes for visibility of accurate information.


Cataloging it, as long as it suits their agenda. Otherwise, deranked.

Removing videos from war reporters' channels, but promoting garbage like Lil Yachty to the top of the Youtube etc charts out of nowhere with no view numbers, let alone talent...


> Most of us understood what google and facebook were going in.

It's also revisionist to interject your own thoughts and represent them to a party as whole.

People may have been cognizant that there are ills to Google/Facebook's model, but these are mostly externalities and not necessarily related to the direct impact. The point is - it's in our nature to ignore externalities, as long as the immediate goal is achieved.


> We, as technologists, certainly knew and understood the dangers of companies like Facebook and Google from early on.

Certainly, Eric Brewer and friends [1] understood these issues and were concerned in 1997. Today, Dr. Brewer is a "vice president of infrastructure" at Google.

Is it money? I'm not sure. We're all human and have our weaknesses. Noting that Brewer was in near tears discussing Inktomi I would guess success and ambition are also driving factors.

[1]: https://www.cypherpunks.ca/~iang/pubs/privacy-compcon97.pdf

[2]: https://www.cypherpunks.ca/~iang/pubs/pet3.pdf


> For the techies going to work for google, it was never about not being evil. It was about getting rich.

Most "techies going to work for google" or any other tech firm, are not going to get rich, in the Bill Gates or Larry Ellison sense. Sure, techies (currently) have a good shot at an above average lifestyle, but that's it. Working as third engineer from the left is not going to provide generational wealth for their descendants, or significantly impact their retirement dates. like everyone else, they are still dependent on their ability to work in order to survive. And it's all highly dependent on the whims of the tech job market. Everything about how good techies have it could be negated during the next tech downturn.


> Most "techies going to work for google" or any other tech firm, are not going to get rich, in the Bill Gates or Larry Ellison sense.

You're describing 2 of the 10 richest billionaires in the world. Most people in general are not going to get that rich, most rich people are not going to get that rich, and nobody is going to get that rich by joining a company that has 100 or more employees already.

Gates, Ellison, Allen, Ballmer, Bezos, etc. are the richest 1% of the richest 1% of the richest 1%, and then some. There is tons of room in the category of "rich" that doesn't involve being particularly close to their level. Sure, you won't be able to single-handedly afford a professional sports franchise, but you'll be rich.


We can agree that a successful conversation on this topic requires a shared definition of “rich”. I just don’t think the fleeting wealth that comes with able-bodied employment counts. Rich implies some level of financial independence. One is rich if they can stop working immediately and maintain their existing standard of living indefinitely. This definition includes many more than just the top 0.01% but does not include employees who spend all $500k they make in the year and those who are temporarily well off because they just won the IPO (or other) lottery. I’d call those people merely “currently highly paid workers.”

Financial independence at an annual living rate of $100,000 is “rich”—you can live off more money a year than most people make, and you don’t even work. At a conservative 3% withdrawal rate, a lump sum of $3.33 MM can provide that income in perpetuity, assuming an otherwise functioning world economy. It wasn’t hard to get $3-5MM of stock as an early employee of a successful IPO tech company.

Well, the only gate from $500k a year to financially independent is spending. In my current situation, if I made that much I would happily retire with an improved standard of living in about a year. But I also value financial independence above most other things, so I'm spending less than 1/10th of that per year.

> Most "techies going to work for google" or any other tech firm, are not going to get rich, in the Bill Gates or Larry Ellison sense.

I can't speak for the OP, but there is absolutely a sense of getting rich working early at a tech company. The market for startup options is a direct indication of this. Google and Facebook both made, what..1000 millionaires each when they IPO'd? Point is, yes if you get in early to a world dominating technology company, you can absolutely become rich and be set for life.

> Everything about how good techies have it could be negated during the next tech downturn.

Disagree. Downturns force productivity and technology fuels productivity. If anything it's going to force more investment in technology to replace humans so businesses can maintain profitability. It's the sales & marketing folks that are usually in trouble, because many of these high growth companies will simply turn those functions off while we wait for the economy to swing back.


The FB and Google scenarios were vanishing outliers. A whole lot of if statements had to evaluate to true to produce those outcomes, and at the end of the day, a FB IPO millionaire is pretty well off but his kids will still have to work for a living.

The remaining 99% of early tech employees for other companies will end up with equity worth a house down payment if they are lucky, worth a few months of rent in the usual case, and often worth nothing.

EDIT: As for the tech downturn, just wait and see. I assume you have not been through a significant tech bear market from your comment, but if you have, you should know better. Things dry up completely, for nearly everyone. If you miraculously keep your job, you are still not in any powerful bargaining position.


> The FB and Google scenarios were vanishing outliers.

Not my point.

> The remaining 99% of early tech employees for other companies will end up with equity worth a house down payment if they are lucky, worth a few months of rent in the usual case, and often worth nothing.

Agreed. People are disillusioned to believe they'll become one of the "first 1000 have become millionaires". My point is that this a motivating factor, even if incorrectly assumed by most people.

https://danluu.com/startup-tradeoffs/

> I assume you have not been through a significant tech bear market from your comment

To be clear - wasn't there only one tech bear market that is historically significant? (2001) If so, I would greatly challenge that we will hit another one similar to that anytime soon. Is there a frothy market right now? Yes. However most tech companies today have the discounted future economics to sustain themselves in an downturn. In 2001 that was not the case - you had companies IPO'n with 0 in revenue. A macro economic downturn is absolutely right around the corner, but a "fall out the bottom" bear tech market is very far from us.


a significant tech bear market from your comment, but if you have, you should know better. Things dry up completely, for nearly everyone

Can confirm. 2001 was utter carnage. Developers hit a lot worse than ops but no one got out unscathed.


Even in smaller company's you can do that at one UK place I worked at one point everyone (approx. 50-55) was $millionare.

That's 5% of your 1000 right there and I know peope who have made $200,000 effectively tax free on a single 5 year UK sharesave


The very framing of this reply shows the incredible privilege of SV software engineers. Google has minted hundreds if not thousands of millionaires, that may not be "generational wealth", but it sure as hell is not-worried-about-the-next-downturn wealth. This is far more opportunity than the vast majority of humans have ever had, setting Gates or Ellison as your target wealth is a recipe for misery.

People flocked to google because they wanted to get rich.

I'm pretty skeptical of objective-sounding claims about people's motivations.


This is the right way to think about it. Tech/Knowledge workers are pretty smart. There's no real "tricking" going on, which is part of what makes the problem so difficult to rout and insidious. If we were 'tricked' major economic and societal upheaval would be around the corner. But we're not tricked. We're willing participants.

There is a prevailing cynicism among the working man in that he recognizes (though often doesn't articulate) the compulsion to participate in the market that comes with capitalist systems. We already knew these companies were not shining paragons of ethical values—almost every participant in capitalism has known this since Industrialization. To focus on the consciousness of particular individuals or the false ethos of particular companies is to miss the real problem, which is systemic and lies at the roots in the capitalist mode of life and organization of resources. So long as you have capitalism you will have companies that make profit and market-survival an all-encompassing goal (whether or not they admit it) and complacent workers who are forced to support the Darwinian market game to have access to the means of subsistence. Capitalist logic is defined by its unbridled replacement of all other values (ethical, spiritual, etc.) with the value of exchange.


In the past one could escape "evil" environment in private life; now with overreaching/intrusive tech on a global scale and companies losing their initial (even if only public) philosophies under the pressure of making more profit after reaching market saturation that possibility is going to be vastly reduced, and only then we will see what they are really capable of (with warning signs already popping up).

Perhaps a correction, if we are talking about the phrase "don't be evil", literally, I can see it on: https://abc.xyz/investor/other/google-code-of-conduct.html

Perhaps "erased" is not quite accurate.


Well expressed. I look forward to the next world-changing movement/technology/culture that'll make google/facebook look like the IBM/Microsoft of old. Hope it'll be soon, so that I'm still young enough to enjoy the next counter-culture.

It's true that ultimately there aren't a whole lot of morally "good" things you can do with your compsci degree at the moment. You can work in adtech or building corporate software, ecommerce, etc. to sell plastic trinkets to people and raise your company's stock price. Or you can do ML, which will probably hurt poor people in the near to mid term and probably contribute somewhat to the more Orwellian aspects of modern life. Or you can do some third thing: some kind of applied tech a more physical engineering discipline (energy, spaceships, robots, etc.) that might or might not do anything for the common man.

I get really bummed out that there are so many smart people coming out of the US education system who go to work for Wall Street or in adtech/ecommerce roles. We have the brains and energy and passion to solve alternative energy, vertical farming, asteroid mining, carbon sequestration, and social democracy overnight but our system deliberately misallocates resources to projects that generate capital for the already wealthy instead of promoting one iota of social good. Here's to hoping this is a start of that bigger, necessary change.


I know! You're incredibly right! It's seems impossible that so many smart, educated, talented, passionate, hard-working people could fail to solve any problem they put their minds to!

Yet, might it be worth considering that any individual human brain could potentially be less than infinitely malleable in all possible aspects? I have known blindingly brilliant artists who are utterly repulsed by basic arithmetic, and equally brilliant mathematicians who cannot even begin to grasp how any person could be concerned with things as minor as governance structure when there is math to be done. It might be possible to press those people into the service of what someone else deems social good, but I must admit I am experiencing some doubts that they would universally consider it socially good for them.

Beyond that, consider what selling trinkets and shipping things around the globe has done. It's helped lift billions of people out of abject poverty. It has made material well-being and food security possible on scales unimaginable only a few centuries ago. It has done so more successfully, and more quickly, than any effort explicitly directed at social good in human history. A critic would point to the price paid, and posit that there might have been a better option, but this critic is almost certainly making perfect the enemy of good in pursuit of an ideal.

I get really bummed out that there are so many smart people coming out of the US education system who struggle to recognize so many things in life. You're absolutely right - what's lost by chasing money for its own sake is one such. It's just maybe worth considering that there could potentially be others.


As far as "the price paid" that you mention: the price is not paid in any way. The price is being put on a high-interest credit card and we're paying the minimum. Someday those cans we've kicked down the road (carbon emissions, pacific garbage patch, destruction of ocean ecosystems in general, deforestation, economic inequality, desertification, etc.) in order to sell more plastic trinkets will come back to collect on our outstanding balance.

> but this critic is almost certainly making perfect the enemy of good in pursuit of an ideal.

Yes, because "good" means preventable poverty related deaths by the millions because it is not profitable to do anything about it \s. Good for you != good, but it is easy to look past that when it isn't right in your face


You're right. It's incredibly easy to ignore things that aren't immediately in front of me. Like the human rights abuses ongoing in China, which aren't really part of my immediate daily life and I don't generally think about much.

With that said, is it possible that this passage could be interpreted more charitably? Perhaps some might read it as a comment on how demanding perfection can cause more negative effects while seeking to prevent negative effects.

For example, where might our technology be if our species had refused to extract or smelt metals until we had the ability to do so without any emissions of any sort?

It's not about what real preventable human tragedies can be averted, but aren't, because of the evils of human greed you wisely point to. It's about accepting that imperfect improvements to alleviate human pain and reducing human lives lost can, sometimes, be preferable to hoping for perfection at some future date.


But how would our species conceive of the idea of emissions and the effects thereof without first creating emissions and observing their effects?

I think the issue has more to do with the Cassandra effect and the tendencies of some to not consider or want to act on potentially catastrophic situations if they believe it imperils their own more immediate well-being or status.


It's true. It's impossible to take seriously every warning. Every potentially catastrophic situation has to be evaluated on the risks and benefits.

And, well, sometimes the people making those choices are wrong. Or shortsighted. Or egotistical. Or afraid for their own comfort, power, and privilege.

At the same time, I still don't take the warnings of the flat-earthers particularly seriously, so perhaps not all warnings of potentially catastrophic situations are equally credible. As opposed to how seriously I take the warnings of climate scientists.


Your comments are a beautiful example of how to dialogue and disagree constructively. I need to learn this skill :)

Thank you.

I read How To Make Friends And Influence People. Then I threw out all the fluff about genuine connection, and realized that people only actually care that you make them feel like they've been understood. This is the implicit thesis of the book, once you realize that a decades-dead author cannot possibly have a genuine two-way emotional connection with you.

In practice, this tends to mean telling people they're right a lot. Then you imply they have the wonderful, glorious opportunity to become more right. Then you remind them of how right they are. If this sounds exhausting, well, it is. But it also matches the structure of my previous comment.


What do you believe to be the cause of that abject poverty?

Let me guess, well, maybe the fact that we're born poor?

Poverty is the absence of a lot of things. If you're born in a small isolated tribe in the middle of the Amazon, you're poor. Nobody took anything from you, there is almost no inequality, but you're still poor.

But I think I know where you're trying to get: "They're only poor because X took whatever from them". Probably where X is capitalism, Western countries, or whoever is the fashionable enemy.

Nope.


I believe Western imperialism has something to do with it... While it's true that capitalism has improved outcomes for some nations, it's also true that capitalist exploitation in Africa and South America really messed up the way their world works. It's made it so that free markets had something to fix later on, not fixed a pre-existing problem with these countries.

People can choose what to believe and all, but it's pretty hard to look at things like the African slave trade or Diamond mining in Zimbabwe or Sierra Leone and find anything but capitalism and imperialism run amok.


Look back further - while certainly not blameless they didn't start the fire - humanity in general did. In South America even the Conquistadors even with their vast advantages would have died if not for all of the other tribes sick of their flower wars and getting captured for sacrifice. They also had an army on their side. One they later betrayed and made an underclass but fifty men in an unfamiliar territory would die eventually to their might. Africa had its own warfare and ironically one of the most benign actions of trade helped set up a collapse - trade with others is how advancement is driven and they wound up benefiting from trade in more productive crops - some with precious metals and ivory and some through slaves. That lead to a population boom and that lead bloody wars of Shaka Zulu. The point being exploitation doesn't need any outside actors and is the true enemy. The true cause of poverty and backwardness is lack of growth.

This doesn't absolve the misdeeds of exploiters - indeed colonies end in independence usually specifically because of mercantilist mismanagement squanders the true potential of the country by seeing it only as a well of land resources instead of an extension to nurture for mutual good but it is important to recognize that getting out "the Imperialists" won't make things better automatically and the wrong replacement can ironically be even worse. As bad as the British were in Rwanda they never decided to genocide the Tutsis even though their manipulations lead to it indirectly. Evil comes from within and without "the tribe" and it is important to recognize that.


A common response is "Capitalism". It's an easy, glib response. Unfortunately, it's not a good one, because abject poverty predates capitalism and exists without it.

Another response is "deprivation". Unfortunately, this response is effectively an appeal to the definition of poverty.

Since you asked what I believe, I don't believe there is a well-defined single cause of poverty.


A common response is "Capitalism". It's an easy, glib response. Unfortunately, it's not a good one

If anything, Capitalism has lifted 90% of the world's population out of poverty. It's a solution to absolute poverty, not a cause. It may, however, be a cause of relative poverty. But to paraphrase Winston Churchill, it's the worst system for eliminating poverty, after all the other ones we've ever tried.


The idea that Capitalism has raised billions out of poverty is simply not grounded in reality. What the world bank has done with their statistics should send up red flags for someone whos taken Stats 101. I mean first off, the idea that 1$ / day is the poverty line and being slightly above that is absurd. But what's worse in 2000 the world bank reported that the number Rose from 1.2 billion people who made less than 1$/day in 1987 to 1.5 billion in 2000. That obviously doesn't fit the narrative. So they changed the poverty line from 1.02 / day in 1985 to 1.08 in 1993. The number again changed to $1.25 in 2008. Overnight 316 million people were raised out of poverty.

Of course anyone who experienced life in the 90's can see the glaring problem with this. $1.08 in 1993 has the same purchasing power as $1.61 in 2008. Those hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty? They are all still there. The rate of inflation is greater than the rise of the ipl. They did glaringly bad math tricks to make it appear as if half a billion people were lifted out of poverty by neoliberalism and Capitalism. And yet that couldn't be further from the truth.

Now that doesn't even take into account the situation in "wealthier" countries, such as Sri Lanka. A survey of Sri Lanka found that 35% of the country fell underneath their poverty line. However the world bank using the international poverty line reported only 4% were lifted out of poverty that year!. A wave of the hand and suddenly 31% of the population didn't factor in to their feel good story of capitalistic success.

And again I want to point out these absurd arbitrary numbers. $1.25 a day? Are you kidding me? Have you ever lived on $1.25 a day? The UN reports that the average person in 2005 needed at least $4.50/day just to meet the minimum nutritional requirements. The minimum. In India, one of the harleded successes of the world bank, children living just above the ipl had a 60% chance of being malnourished.

New Castle University once calculated that if people we're to achieve a normal life expectancy they would need at least $2.50 / day as the new IPL. But if we adopted that as the new IPL it would mean that now 3.1 billion people are living in abject poverty.

I got these numbers from this video https://youtu.be/A6VqV1T4uYs but in the description they list out all of their sources.

When you stop making up numbers to hide actual real poverty, the picture becomes clear. Rather than lifting people out of poverty, neoliberal capitalist policies are responsible for plunging half a billion more people into poverty today than in 1980.


> It's true that ultimately there aren't a whole lot of morally "good" things you can do with your compsci degree at the moment.

uhhh. your bubble is astonishing. or your standards for "good" are unattainable by anyone.

how about folks who work on CAD software? is that bad because it will be used to design plastic trinkets, or good because it'll design medical prosthetics?

(are the medical prosthetics good because they help people, or bad because they make someone money?)

if i write the software for a piece of test equipment for batteries, is that good because now people who buy consumer electronics are less likely to catch on fire? or bad because i helped the big company sell more plastic trinkets?


Not a generous interpretation of their argument. I’m in biomedical research which also wasn’t mentioned explicitly but I read it as a more general argument about finding something that is future-looking and helpful to many vs a few.

I work for a medical company. It's really a tech company that makes medical software. Runs like a pretty typical successful tech startup. Our customers are hospitals and doctor clinics. The software syncs the data between various networks. Can notify a patient's primary care giver when their patient is checked into the ER, can notify a doctor if that patient is bouncing between hospitals looking for meds, there was even a time I heard of a man going between hospitals, checking in, and vandalizing hospital equipment. Our software was able to notify the nurse who checked him in at his last destination.

It's actually an awesome place to work, and it's nice to know that I'm actually helping push the needle a little bit in the right direction to help the medical industry succeed.


I’ve been thinking about finding a new job, and finding something that I feel is moral and pushes society forward are important criteria for me. Medtech seems like the sort of thing that might meet them.

If you don’t mind me asking, how’d you end up in the medical device field? Do you feel like the projects you work on contribute to the advancement of human health? And do you feel that you’re adequately compensated? I don’t love asking that last one in the same breath as questions of morality, but I do have a family to take care of.


> If you don’t mind me asking, how’d you end up in the medical device field?

I was recruited from a B2B company by an old friend/boss. I was skeptical because I had only ever heard bad things about working for medical companies. I was very impressed with the leadership, product, and direction of the company. So I took the job.

> Do you feel like the projects you work on contribute to the advancement of human health?

I don't feel like I'm making a direct impact, no. However, I can clearly see that the work I do is a single cog in a machine that actually makes a real-world difference for medical professionals. I talked to a family friend who is a nurse. He was complaining that software was horrible for medical professionals, then he went in about this new product they started using and how it's made a world of a difference. Turns out it was our product and I just didn't know he used it and he didn't realize I had switched jobs to that company. He went on and on about how it makes things better (easier to diagnose, easier to see patient history, etc etc)

> And do you feel that you’re adequately compensated?

I got a significant raise that beat out other job offers at the time for another B2B company. I have what I feel is a competitive salary (a respectable amount higher than the average in my area) and the benefits are quite amazing (401k, untracked PTO with management who actually does a good job encouraging vacation, 100% paid health insurance, etc)


Really appreciate the reply, thanks. I think your answer to the second question was a good one. It would be difficult for an engineer to have a direct impact in a non-engineering field, but I think what you've described sounds like a good place to be.

I can't speak for xahrepap, but I'm working on my PhD where I operationalize deep learning for radiology. Whenever I do find myself sorta burned out on a project, I do take solace knowing that it's apply a complex technical field to bettering the way we deliver healthcare.

I can't speak to compensation yet since I'm only on a PhD stipend, but there's plenty of blue chip companies (that bring blue chip salary and benefits) that are going into the healthcare field.


It's exceedingly depressing and it's one of the reasons I can't stomach the Bay Area.

It doesn't take long to notice serious manifestations of societal rot. And yet some of the brightest minds of our generation spend their best years trying to get people to spend more of their cognitive surplus on mindlessly staring at their device screen.

I'm not at all saying this is tech's fault. I think the problem is much more systemic. But that doesn't make it any less troublesome.


I completely agree. It's not tech's fault at all - tech companies prey on our basic neural hardware as much as fast-food companies do, as much as predatory banks do, and all for the same reason: to generate capital.

Luckily, I think I'm starting to see more people waking up to smell the societal rot that tech has helped foster, and people are becoming more motivated to fight it. I'm just waiting to see if tech folks can mobilize to push for causes like socialism during my lifetime. That would be the ultimate "Revenge of the Nerds" story line at this point.


I read a line from a book review by Krugman where he says “free trade is not as important as saving the planet.”

The context was the unlikely event of the WTO calling fouls if America and a few other regions levied carbon tariffs on imported goods.

Of course, The article was written in 2013, and it’s cyncisim would be considered wildly optimistic in today’s climate.

But perhaps his point is wrong.

Perhaps for humans, it is free trade that is more important than the planet.

Free trade is effectively our distributed human brain. Our ability to make choices and distributing those choices down information trees encompassed by entire industries.

Society is one big exercise in managing complexity - obfuscating or dispersing away decisions and information.

And maybe for human beings, that is just more important than saving the coral reefs or the elephants.

The insects may die, so we lose almonds and other flowering trees. That just means almonds and other precious species disappear.

But most human beings don’t even get almonds, Or meat, or fruit, as part of their diet anyways.

It would be nice to save other species, but if the whole planet was just covered in bio crop species 1-299, and a few aesthetics, humanity would be alive and ok.

Perhaps the awful truth is that for humanity as a species, free trade and economic growth is more important than saving the planet.


It's not tech's fault at all - tech companies prey on our basic neural hardware as much as fast-food companies do

Do you think tech can solve the problem of homeless addiction? There actually aren't that many homeless in the Bay Area.

There is only one problem with socialism. There is no check and balance on the amount of appropriation, which cannot be voluntary. Unchecked power eventually leads to oppression. Systems which you can't opt out of often lead to evil. (This may apply to Capitalism, but there it's somewhat ameliorated by creative destruction.)


We have the brains and energy and passion to solve alternative energy, vertical farming, asteroid mining, carbon sequestration, and social democracy overnight

1) Alternative Energy has a lot of minds working on it already. Success is dependent on the establishment of large scale infrastructure and changing societal expectations. One "Ah-Ha!" moment isn't going to cut it.

2) Vertical Farming is a world-saving problem that needs solving? Color me skeptical.

3) Asteroid Mining: Also requires establishment of large scale infrastructure.

4) Carbon Sequestration: The laws of thermodynamics are against you on this, unless you can marshal self-replicators harvesting a significant portion of the sunlight falling on the Earth. If we've gotten that desperate, it must mean that building sunshades at L1 has been made unavailable by groundside politics and/or the Kessler Syndrome.

5) Social Democracy Overnight: Why is this desirable, outside of theory? The whole of history indicates to us that collectivism works either on small scales, or as a disguised totalitarianism.

projects that generate capital for the already wealthy instead of promoting one iota of social good

Is that what the Industrial Revolution was? Or has industrialization raised 90% of the world's population out of poverty? Hint: It's the latter.

Another hint: Has there ever been a collection of intelligent, privileged young people who thought they could change the world into a utopia? I think you might want to study the history a bit. There was one utopian project which was implemented by privileged intellectuals, but which was also based on a good knowledge of history and human nature. Though flawed, that project worked, did some good, and has been going on for well over 200 years.


Social Democracy Overnight: Why is this desirable, outside of theory? The whole of history indicates to us that collectivism works either on small scales, or as a disguised totalitarianism.

Here we observe the not-so-subtle attempt to shift the debate from "social democracy" to "collectivism", as if the two terms are synonyms.

We also see a denial that mixed economies with strong social safety nets can ever work on, say, the scale of a nation. Despite plenty of evidence available, in the real world, that they can.


Here we observe the not-so-subtle attempt to shift the debate from "social democracy" to "collectivism", as if the two terms are synonyms.

Exactly what is the difference between "social democracy" and "socialism?"

In particular, how is there a system of checks and balances to keep the voters from appropriating everything, thus handing all of the power to the central government and thus initiating totalitarianism?

We also see a denial that mixed economies with strong social safety nets can ever work on, say, the scale of a nation. Despite plenty of evidence available, in the real world, that they can.

It can be argued that all existing economies are mixed economies.


how is there a system of checks and balances to keep the voters from appropriating everything

The US doesn't have one of those.

Literally. The people of the United States can, without consent of Congress or the President or the Supreme Court, do everything you just said, via the amendment-convention process (Congress does not have the option to deny a convention when at least 2/3 of states call for it). Once the convention's underway, even state legislatures can be bypassed by conventions in the states.

Thus it's possible to get amendments into the US Constitution without them ever having been voted on or even considered by Congress or the state legislatures. And if you're worried about a populist wave "appropriating everything" in other countries, why not worry about it in the US? It's just as possible.


The US doesn't have one of those.

Another way of saying it, the only check and balance is political.

After the founding, there was another check and balance, in that the voting public, comprised solely of landowners, would never have voted for socialism.


Ask the Roman Republic how the "wisdom" of governance by the landed gentry worked out.

1. Yeah, sure we have a lot of minds working on AE, but are you really going to argue that working on Farmville is even comparable to the task of establishing the infrastructure and social changes needed to make AE universally solvent? No where am I saying we need an Ah-Ha moment. We need people who can work and proper incentives from the supposedly smart people who run the show in government and industry.

2. If you're unfamiliar with the environmental problems and inefficiencies present in our current food system, I implore you to do some research and get back to me. Decentralized, high-efficiency, urban food production is going to become more and more necessary as human populations continue to move into cities and global warming reduces crop viability in much of the world.

3. I don't understand how "establishment of large scale infrastructure" is a blocker to what I'm saying. Large scale infrastructure means you need smart people to design and build things to make a goal possible. You need "large scale infrastructure" like railroads to ship goods across the U.S. but when that was a need in the 17th century no one was grousing about how much work it was going to be.

4. Say what you will, but a system of distributed C02 scrubbers powered by alternative energy is at least a feasible way to prevent a Hothouse Earth scenario. Better than just accepting climatic doom through inaction.

5. Social democracy doesn't mean we become out-and-out Marxists, it just means that maybe we reconsider government in relation to what people need. Germany is a social democracy, USA is a democracy where people go without clean drinking water. Talk about a false dichotomy.


Doing the right thing — not what’s profitable or power enhancing — isn’t what business is about. In part that is because survival and solvency are quite difficult in the details; and in part that is because doing “good” requires a much richer concept of what you are doing than is required by being profitable and placating shareholders. It’s easier to get it wrong, harder to say when you’re done and can move resources to other things and harder to keep people’s actions aligned with the goal.

Over the past hundred years, California has been host to thousands of intentional communities, where people set their sights on something higher than making a living. Nearly all of these communities collapse within a generation, neither living up to their ambitions nor providing for their members’ most basic needs. These failures have multiple causes, but ultimately can be summed up in terms of having one institution serve too many different functions, in an environment where there are already specialized institutions serving those functions efficiently.

People seeking to do good in the world aren’t looking for work, they are looking for religion — in the sense of spiritual community and connection to the godhead. Doing good is the role of something like the Salvation Army and charitable missions — institutions of long standing which are subject to very different guidelines than businesses.

Those who would mix business and charitable, virtuous action are asking to be held accountable for neither while enjoying the rewards of both.


> Doing the right thing — not what’s profitable or power enhancing — isn’t what business is about.

If only society / the global economic system wasn't set up to incentive profit over all else....


It’s not.

Profit is achieved primarily by selling people goods.

people want cheap meat, coffee and toys.

We found ways to give people that.

There are other effects where corporations cheat the laws, corrupt government, and pillage the environment - true.

But the system has always been about you and me getting more choice and more options at better prices.

Your toothpastes offer different flavors, and come in a magic immortal material called plastic which costs nearly nothing to make and is better for our environment than using tin tubes.

Profit has many ills, as single numbers often do - they reduce complex decisions down to a simple number.

That’s the magic of it all. We don’t have to examine the calculus of our morality when buying a pixel or an iPhone.

We just have to Examine the price.

I think we have to come to terms with the fact that humanity as a distributed entity, is not a moral organism.

Profit is just a way to reduce complexity. We have a society that reflects this because our reality is such.

Which is why many of the popular solutions today are prices which reflect carbon costs.


You're making too many assumptions in almost every statement here. If you're going to continue with this line of thinking then please back it up with evidence.

Well yeah, if someone is going to try and simplify how the world economy works in one paragraph, I would expect large amounts of simplification.

Indeed. We need a new and more comprehensive set of metrics by which we measure value add or success.

When considering how successful a thing, a person, or a project is, innovation and market success certainly should be weighted heavily but we really need some other metrics to include.


It's really not. People take jobs for all sorts of reasons. They are answerable to their friends, family, community etc. If that were the case, why would people be resigning from Google over moral issues?

This person is saying is that our economic system incentivizes profit, not that it mandates it for every agent. So while a few relatively well-off, well-educated, and principled Googlers can quit over perceived injustice, many people either can't economically justify such a choice, don't know enough to know that there's a problem with their work, or simply don't care and take the money over morals.

And furthermore, when was the last time you saw someone held to account for their job title? I've done that and every time it results in me alienating someone, because no one wants to lie to themselves and be forced to answer that they work at Raytheon because they think that's the way to do good in the world.


No, they said our society and economic system incentivize profit over all else. Neither of those things are true.

Lots of people make principled decisions every single day. You think only rich engineers can afford to put morals over money, and everyone else is selling their soul for a paycheck? Where do you live?


It's the other way around -- if only we didn't expect the economic system to serve every social need.

Business and the economy are doing what they are supposed to do. It's our expectations that are out of line.


If businesses are exempt from satisfying social needs, is the expectation that the government (through legislation) and private citizens (by voting) are responsible for addressing them? Basically just regulate businesses with the expectation that they have no social conscience and hope legislation is enough to prevent them from taking actions that damage society?

If businesses are exempt from satisfying social needs, is the expectation that the government (through legislation) and private citizens (by voting) are responsible for addressing them?

They aren't exempt from serving any social needs -- that's taking what I said further than I said it. Business do serve many social needs. They just can't serve every social need. They are a limited institution with a limited function.

It's not just government and individual people that come together to make a robust society that can counterbalance business interests; and business, government and the individual are not all we have at our disposal to meet the broad challenge of maintaining a just, livable and inspiring society. The wide variety of "civil society" institutions that, at one time, characterized the American polity -- unions & professional associations, men's and women's organizations, benevolent societies, church groups and religious federations -- are important avenues to political participation outside of (a) government, (b) the individual and (c) business. Francis Fukuyama, in Political Order & Political Decay, highlights the great significance of civil society organizations in the survival of democracy in America, and the eventual adoption of it in England, Denmark and many other countries.

Basically just regulate businesses with the expectation that they have no social conscience and hope legislation is enough to prevent them from taking actions that damage society?

They need to be regulated so as to (a) "...prevent them from taking actions that damage society" and (b) encourage them to stick closer to action that is beneficial to society. Were businesses to determine on their own what those things mean, it would effectively be undermining the political will of the rest of society. Businesses are paid to do a job.

Please consider that your reply was a little exaggerated, taking what I said further than I said it. This is quite characteristic of American politics at present; and perhaps of hacker politics in general. It doesn't serve us, though: it neither helps us to understand one another, nor to come to a workable agreement that improves public life.


Any better suggestions?

Ones that actually work as intended in the general case, and don't frequently malfunction by getting a bunch of people exiled, consigned to real poverty, or killed?


> Those who would mix business and charitable, virtuous action are asking to be held accountable for neither while enjoying the rewards of both.

The problem isn't that people are expecting businesses to be charities. It's that survival and solvency make abuse of the commons a business necessity.

People want jobs that don't involve abusing the commons.


The parent comment does mentions several key areas of public benefit where they'd like to see business step in.

Might I suggest the civic tech sector as a place where coders (and designers and product managers) can find morally satisfying work? You can work directly for government in organizations like the US Digital Service and 18F that bring the lean startup model into the public sector or join purpose-driven private companies like Nava and Ad Hoc that contract on government project spaces like healthcare using modern development practices. And there's lots of charitable and volunteer opportunities at well.

https://usds.gov/jobs https://18f.gsa.gov/jobs https://jobs.codeforamerica.org/ https://brigade.codeforamerica.org/


There are many interesting opportunities in healthcare related to improving care quality, increasing interoperability, cutting inefficiencies, boosting EMR usability, and integrating wearable device data. Funding and jobs are available.

I would also note that a Computer Science degree isn't necessarily the best preparation for a career building commercial software.


You can work on blockchain projects that might have the potential to bring financial services to the unbanked and poor in 3rd world countries, but, oh wait a minute, the technology will probably just be used to create predatory financial products for payday lenders to expand their market...

The best way to make sure you are working on ethical projects is to start and run your own company. Any technology can be used for good or evil. Personally, I do think blockchain has a lot of potential, but the best way to ensure that your technology gets used for good is to design it yourself that way - in other words, build a micro-lending system that helps finance small business owners in 3rd world countries with fair interest rates, instead of building a predatory payday lending system that charges unfair interest rates.


I have yet to see even a concept, never mind a product, that actually uses a blockchain in a net-positive way, especially for "the unbanked". Universally high transaction fees and slow confirmation times on anything that sees leitimate amounts of use with no clear path towards mitigating this situation, if it's even possible to mitigate at all, combined with several choices of security system each with devastating concequences - from the morally black proof-of-work burning precious resources at a time climate change is already threatening to destroy us, to the morally grey proof-of-stake that simply reinforces the idea that those with the most resources deserve even more resources - makes for something that doesn't seem to have much potential for _good_. The "Unbanked" aren't going to be served by these systems, they need efficient, reliable, and safe systems.

Ironically, it seems the 'banked' have become 'unbanked' after the recent speculative highs and subsequent crash of bitcoin prices.

Even aside from the financial scams, any proof-of-work blockchain project is an ecological obscenity.

Any system that generates value will create an incentive to waste an equal amount to get it. In proof of work all of that wasted energy is on chain, since that's the most efficient way to get the benefit. Every other protocol provides the same incentive to waste work. Just look at how much work financial institutions spend to chase the money released by the US government in the form of debt.

http://www.truthcoin.info/blog/pow-cheapest/


No. You are tragically misinformed. Most systems that generate value incentivize generating as little waste as possible.

There is nothing "efficient" about proof-of-work -- in fact, it's deliberately inefficient because it's a zero-sum game and all the miners have to waste as much electricity as possible to compete with the other miners.

The wasted energy is not "on the chain". It's gone, converted into CO2 poisoning the planet.

Banks may do stupid or damaging things, but they aren't in the business of wasting energy just to prove they wasted it.


Every system of currency creation is a “zero sum game” because someone ends up with the unit of currency and everyone else doesn’t. The wasted energy is on the chain as hashes which are difficult to recreate. These are the basics. Do you seriously think people aren’t wasting energy trying to get their hands on created dollars? And they’re incentivized to waste up to a dollar to receive a dollar.

"Currency creation" is not value-creation. A good currency is a medium of exchange and a unit of account.

I think there's a lot of good, moral work out there.

I have a friend who's a security engineer at a bank. I was surprised when he took the job - he'd always been pretty to the left politically.

But he takes pride in making sure the grandmas of the world don't get their accounts drained. He realizes he's not saving the world, but he's not swapping around debt vouchers until the economy crashes.

It's counter intuitive, but in his mind he's more moral than someone working at Google or Facebook.

(He also brags to me about the vacation - apparently they're encouraged to take their time for anti-fraud reasons?)


My understanding is that the anti-fraud vacation thing is related to being able to correlate a decrease in fraud with a specific person going on vacation. If you have money that mysteriously goes missing on the regular and 10 employees who touch it along the way, it's hard to determine which of those employees is responsible. If one of them goes away on vacation for a week and no money goes missing that entire week, you suddenly have a much better idea who might have been involved.

Also, it makes sure there are no single points of failure. Apparently many embezzlers refuse to take vacation for fear someone will look over the books and notice irregularities.

So, I run a bunch of websites on a platform provided for free provided by that Evil Overlord Google and I make a few bucks that way, which matters to me because I remain desperately poor, and I also disseminate useful info for free that way to needy people, such as homeless people.

BlogSpot is a robust platform and some of the folks who worked on it probably have compsci degrees.

I'm also curing the incurable, but most people don't believe that, so probably no point in trying to convince you that I may yet win a Nobel Prize in medicine someday, if people will ever stop calling me crazy and take me seriously.

Don't mind me. I'm just cranky cuz reasons.


The effective altruism perspective is to make as money as possible doing whatever, then use that to fund noble causes. At the individual level it's the Wall Street quant who donates his income. At the corporate level, it's FB using ad money to create the Chan-Zuckerberg Intiative to cure cancer.

You could build a decentralized version of facebook or twitter. That would be a truly amazing progress to humankind!

And I am sure the 20 users who manage to get it working correctly will be really happy that they can talk to each other.

Of course, Social only works if a critical mass of users start actively using the network...achieving that number, no matter what the underlying tech is, is a very hard nut to crack.


It's just your lack of imagination

applied tech to a physical engineering degree could wreak far more havoc on humanity than ad tech

I wonder if socialism done right (if that's possible, as no one has yet proven it is) would lead to smart people working on the kinds of things you listed. In theory it would, as there'd be no need for adtech, ecommerce, Wall Street, etc.

I'm not necessarily advocating for socialism, I'm just suggesting that the USA government spends more on incentivizing technological innovation in areas that have real payouts for humanity. It's almost a tautology that if you started offering government jobs at $100k a year and funding to work on interesting, novel problems, you'd attract a whole lot of people who are bored and disenfranchised with adtech or high finance.

I once produced an open source product while working for Berkeley Lab, which is a DoE lab operated by UC. It does non-classified work. One day we got a visit from a couple employees of Lawrence Livermore Labs (classified research) and my manager glanced at their badges- he said something about "Q" and smiled while asking what they worked on.

They said "multiphysics combustion codes" and my manager looked at me and said "they run nuclear weapons simulations" (they didn't confirm).

After chatting for a while I realized they were using my code to manage nuclear weapons simulations. That's a consequence of licenses like MIT and BSD and Apache: you don't control who uses your software.

I came to terms with this a long time ago but it's still odd to think that I can write software that my own government will use to ensure our destructive weapons work as expected.


After chatting for a while I realized they were using my code to manage nuclear weapons simulations. That's a consequence of licenses like MIT and BSD and Apache: you don't control who uses your software.

While true, there's a big difference between the guy that makes a generic door stop that's used to prop open the door at a nuclear test lab, and the guy making precision parts specific to a nuclear detonator.

Maybe you can't prevent your work being used for what you consider to be immoral, but you can avoid working on a project that's directly contributing to that use.


Pretty much everyone working in the high-performance computing space has to think about this. If you produce something truly useful, it may find its way into use in those kinds of HPC workloads. At the same time, much of our "civilian" use of HPC is being subsidized by those kinds of national security workloads which fund a lot of research and infrastructure.

You might also think about it positively. At least they are blowing up nukes in simulations instead of out in the desert somewhere upwind of a lot of people... speaking of upwind, there is also significant oil and gas funding behind a lot of geophysical science.

Addendum: as I recall, the Globus project was often funded by a mixture of NSF and DoE grants and a large part of its core group was based out of a midwestern national lab.


I never said I thought there was anything wrong with doing nuclear simulations testing. TBH I think it's an overall good.

Globus was mostly run out of Argonne National Lab, but it existed primarily to support scientific computing and public research. We had a subcontract to build pyGlobus since so many people wanted a Python interface (the Globus team started in C++ and then switched to Java and a really, really bad RPC technology called SOAP with WSDL for schema).

I've definitely come to terms with the modern compromise (in which a great deal of scientific research is motivated and funded by defense).


I wouldn't mind too much bing in your shoes: you have not developed your library for that, it's not its main use, and you didn't even know about it.

I work in cloud related things (I do UI stuff for the cloud), I'm pretty sure 3-4 contracts from me, the code I work on could be used for weapons, but I'm clearly not developing a weapon nor something whose main goal is killing.


Look at the bright side.. accurate nuclear weapon simulations led to the end of live weapons testing.

That’s an amazing story. Do you mind sharing the name of the library?

pyglobus: http://toolkit.globus.org/toolkit/docs/4.2/4.2.0/common/pygl...

it was a grid computing library that made it easy to FTP large files at high performance and do automated job management.


Thanks!

I find it surprising that educated people are "just now" doing this. What did people think corporations were doing to the world? Open up your eyes and look around and get your head out of the code and the bullshit slogans your companies have sold you. It's obvious something has gone wrong and is going on.

Eh well let's not throw corporations under the bus entirely. Corporate organization allows people to work together to take risks and tackle problems that are too big for individuals. This has given us the modern technology upon which most of us here earn our livings and given us huge advances in health and standard of living.

Have corporations done bad things? Of course, and so they are regulated, and there are processes for dealing with bad corporate behavior.


Are you serious? There's a better way to work together to take risks and tackle problems that are too big for individuals, and it's called "government": the original corporation that won't sell your grandmother to a meat company for a quarter.

Governments screw over their citizens all the time, on every scale. And their abuses are backed up by violence.

Ah government, the "original corporation" that occasionally decides your grandmother is a problem, organizes a pogrom, and shoots her.

And if you should want to pursue something on a large scale that is not currently trending in government or social circles?

Space is maybe the clearest example of the problem with governments doing anything outside of creating a playground for innovation. 1969 was probably the greatest single government led achievement. We put a man on the moon, having only first put a man into orbit in 1962 and any object into orbit in 1958. That was when space had the government's full attention both as a possible means of weaponization and as a soft power victory of communist powers [ironically] aiming to show the resolve and capability of capitalist nations.

But that same story also shows the downsides of government dependence. Today, nearing the 50th anniversary of putting a man on the moon - we're severely struggling to try to send a man around the moon. And in fact no human would ever leave low Earth orbit after 1972. We not only stopped progressing technologically, we actually and literally technologically regressed. On top of this regression, government never has much of any motivation to cut costs or improve efficiency since they're short term public 'servants' who are just spending other peoples' money. Because of this costs became insane. After all was said and done the Space Shuttle program ended up costing more than half a billion dollars per launch.

At the risk of being tautological, corporations let people pursue what people want to pursue. Governments, by contrast, pursue what governments want to pursue. If you don't like what the government's pursuing you can try to influence votes, lobby, or 'raise social awareness' but in reality it's generally going to be about as effective as pissing into the wind. By contrast, anybody can start a company and start making whatever they want to. And indeed maybe SpaceX would be the proper epilogue here.

Enter corporations. Elon Musk wanted to send a greenhouse to Mars. The costs were unacceptable. It made no sense to him why a rocket that cost on the order of tens of millions of dollars in materials would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to contract. And indeed it didn't make any sense. So he started a company and changed it. Now costs are down by nearly an order of a magnitude, SpaceX is one of the world's largest supplier of launches, and it's looking increasingly likely that the first person to leave our orbit in nearly half a century won't be doing so on a government rocket, but on a privately built, privately funded, and privately launched rocket.

Of course SpaceX would never have been able to get to where they are without governmental contracts and assistance, so I'm not proposing anything like anarcho-capitalism, but rather that government should is the one that provides the sandbox - the people are the ones that build as they choose.


Engineering abilities does not imply political awareness. Making things work is surprisingly hard and (imho) a soul crushing process. You need a specific kind of people's profile for that. From my experience, the presence of a political vision alongside the engineering skills is much lower than expected. When both are present, the political vision does not come from a kind of enlightenment in the engineer's inner soul. But from a feedback loop coming from accurate sources of informations.

> Making things work is surprisingly hard and (imho) a soul crushing proces.

I'm not able to turn off caring about what I work on, although I have picked up some tricks over time that help me turn that caring on. However, there's if I'm working on something that is ultimately lame, eventually I'll run out of stuff to care about. That's when the soul crushing starts to happen.


> However, there's if I'm working on something that is ultimately lame, eventually I'll run out of stuff to care about. That's when the soul crushing starts to happen.

A very important factor whether the work is soul-crushing or not is whether the work is intellectually stimulating or not.


Very true. It is also easy to be so wrapped up in the trappings of what you're doing and the pleasure/sense of duty/sense of fulfillment you're getting from the actual act of your work and the compensation around it that you stop thinking about the consequences of your actions. This sounds terrible, but it's really just a small variant on the banality of evil.

Solving problems, working on tight deadlines, and getting recognition, status, and money are all things that make a person feel like what they're doing is right. It gives an endorphin high, it's a sign that other people are recognizing their work. I hesitate to use the word "addictive" in this context, but it can certainly be compulsive. It's easy to lose sight of whether what you're doing is what you ought to be doing when the act of doing it is so compelling, financially rewarding, and celebrated by others.

This isn't a justification; it is a warning to anyone coming into this field, a warning that I wish I'd thought more about coming into it. This is something we need to be vigilant about as engineers, because it's easy to look the other way on questionable activities by your business when everything else in your life is becoming enriched by it and they're telling you that the ethical issues are for "their side of the business" to worry about. It is not. Do not believe them. Understand where your paycheck is coming from, and make sure that you continue to evaluate it as your company changes and ask yourself if you're okay with it.

In my career, I have:

* Been lied to about the true purpose of a product we were building, and only realized the lie because another engineer was brave enough to call them out and force them to tell the truth. I was fully prepared to be the coward that didn't follow up on it and remain willfully ignorant, and his ethical bravery was the only thing that snapped me out of it.

* Seen a company's financial plan gradually change from an ethical one to an unethical one, and have seen good people struggle and contort themselves to justify it: including myself, for a time.

* Worked in fields where the profits gained by maintaining the status quo has created a desire for minimium compliance instead of continual improvements.

The mandatory ethics class I took for my CS degree never prepared me for what to do, how to be vigilant, or how to take action when it is the company itself that is the unethical one. I feel like we need to have open and honest discussions with people coming into this field about this very real possibility, and about the need to evaluate not just the compensation and interesting problems being presented by a given business, but also the ways that they earn money and whether it is something you find acceptable. And what to do if that situation takes a turn for the worse.

The ACM has some high-level recommendations in their ethics statements, and I think they're a good start. They should be required reading for all software engineers.

https://ethics.acm.org/

I have been a coward. I have been an example of the banality of evil. And I don't think I'm alone in this field: not by a long shot. We've got to pay attention to the ethics of what we create, and we need to be much more brave than we have been.


When I went to undergrad in the mid 90s there was a single, optional “social and ethical issues in computing” class which was a total joke. Hopefully today the situation is better, but I suspect not, given the truckloads of new grads year after year, all prepared to not worry so much about the ethics of how their products are being used.

Aye, I went through my undergrad in the early-to-mid 2000's, and the ethics class (I think it was in 2004? It was a long time ago!) was more about your personal ethical duties to your company, with some discussion of general ethics. I don't recall any significant discussion of the ways in which a company itself might be unethical.

Sounds like engineers (and people in general) are good at optimizing locally (achieving what's good for me) and stink at optimizing globally (achieving what's good for everyone in society).

Aye, I definitely think it's a human thing. I apologize, because I'm going to use the word "addicting" in a non-scientific sense, but the normal use of the word that best conveys the situation in my opinion. Solving problems is addictive. Getting the rush of a job well done - regardless of what that job is - is addictive. Getting recognition is addictive. Having a comfortable salary is addictive.

It's so easy for me to slip into those addictions and not pay attention to the bigger picture. And I feel like I'm not the only one suffering from this problem. In fact, I can see it empirically in the people who have worked at the aforementioned jobs with me.

There needs to be a balance. A person doesn't need to be outright altruistic, but focusing exclusively on local optimization allows for a sort of hedonistic behavior set that can justify - and has historically justified - participation as a cog in larger and harmful systems.


Not to be a smartass but what group of people are actually good at optimizing globally? Tragedy of the commons and sociopathic exploiters make such a thing seem impossible to do - the best you can do is leave something with a positive legacy which is very different from optimizing and far more prone to backfire than local optimization. By definition less is known about the global - let alone the chaotic divergence over time which makes weather models diverge quickly even with massive processing power

> I find it surprising that educated people are "just now" doing this.

Why? Even doctors have been doing nasty things for money (e.g. bribing by big pharma). And they have an official ethical code!


It's easy to talk about all the shitty things corporations do -- which, to be sure, are many -- but the critics ignore anything good, or just claim that "obviously the government/open source projects/NGO's could've done it just as well".

It's exactly like how hardcore libertarians respond to anything good the government does ever by saying the free market would've done it even better: their dogma doesn't permit them to say otherwise, and so they can safely assume they're always right.


No wonder you're surprised; it isn't a "just now" thing. It's a clickbait title. Conscientious objectors have existed probably since time immemorial.

The NYTimes discusses this question in the context of ethics, but the hiring process for software engineers, generally speaking, often avoids any discussion of what will be built. I've interviewed at google and a few other similar places, as well as smaller startups, and remarkably often, there was almost no discussion of the company or product.

A tech interview goes like this "a list begins with an integer between 0 and 5. You then add a new set of integers that must sum to the value of the last added integer. How many different possible lists of 100 integers can be generated through this process?"

I've done this at so many companies. They don't talk about what you'll be building. They don't want your opinion. You could go through two days of whiteboard exam style interview questions and have no idea what the company does. And you could get hired without ever answering a single question about what the company does. It's remarkable, but it's actually designed to work that way.

I think tht the outside world really doesn't quite understand what goes on in tech interviews and tech hiring. If they did, they might know that the indifference to ethics may stem from general programmer unawareness of what the companies they work for actually do.


Lately I've been experiencing some depression (under treatment), so maybe this is just the state of my mind right now, but is anyone else growing more and more cynical about the potential for changing the world, and adjusting their moral philosophy to compensate?

I could barely impact how my former employer ran the company, and even though I had the company's best interests at heart the whole time, I faced resistance the entire way. Political change is even more out of reach. I grow tired of obviously bad policy ideas being promoted because of political party consensus (on "both" sides). I am exhausted of the generational warfare that is causing newer generations to face an uphill battle for the rest of their lives, with higher health care costs, higher housing costs, higher environmental costs, higher education costs, and lower wages. I'm sick of inaction on important issues, misguided action on petty issues, and the nonexistent potential for small unpolitical changes that could have big impacts but won't ever see the time of day because the need for political posturing doesn't allow for it (like for example, a change to the metric system).

I feel trapped and helpless to change anything. And sometimes my feeling of helplessness has made it so I can no longer muster the effort to care for things that are so far beyond my control. I'm at the point on Maslow's Hierarchy where taking care of my family's survival is the only important thing anymore. I sometimes ponder whether I should just go out and get some kind of unethical job that pays a ton of money (and there is no shortage of those kinds of jobs for people of my talents) merely because it accomplishes that goal more efficiently. But then I feel bad about entertaining that thought. I don't really know what to do about it.


Interestingly, I think it was in the book The Elephant In The Brain, it remarks that sometimes people are depressed because they stop looking at the world through the normal veneer of self-deception and start seeing it for what it is and they realize how horrible, sad and shitty humanity and the world actually is.

This is either going to resonate with you or seem totally out of left field, but I'm going to say it anyway: everything you're saying is unconscious defense against changing _yourself_. You don't need to affect policy on a national level to change the world. Changing the world can be as simple as putting the phone away and being present for your family, or volunteering at a local soup kitchen. Cleaning up the side of the highway or mowing an elderly neighbor's lawn. You can make a positive change for people in your own neighborhood.

This is where the defense comes in; acknowledging that there are things you can do _today_ means acknowledging that you're not doing those things which means you have to set up a straw man for yourself of world-sized problems that you can't fix so that you don't feel bad about not doing anything. We all have this heuristic in our minds whether we know it or not: feeling good > feeling bad, but feeling bad > the effort of changing yourself. So we accept feeling bad, and do mental gymnastics (I can't change America to the metric system, so I guess there's no point in doing anything) to minimize.

My advice: don't overthink it. Don't worry about doing something with your life. Just do something with your day!


Well put. I'll try to keep that in mind too.

I was in a similar state of mind and things turned around after pursuing more meaningful work in biotech. There's a whole subfield of Psychology that researches how people find meaningful work and it helped me greatly. A few places to start:

https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2015.1137623

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLFVoEF2RI0


Just saying: you can and should find a job that aligns more with your moral interests. I worked at a socially meaningless music startup for the last couple of years before moving into a job in Alternative Energy. While I still don't have all the control and can't instantly change the world at will, I do know that my time spent at work directly improves work in my field and that every good job I do is a good job for wind energy in general, which is one of our few hopes for doing something to fix climate change.

I've felt similarly. I'd be interested in discussing solutions with anyone, who is interested. Please email me (email in profile) if you want to discuss this stuff.

You know what the most amazing thing about Google is? 20 years ago they didn't exist. Today they are undoubtedly one of the most influential companies in the world and with enough revenue and influence to achieve as much as anybody. The reason I mention this is that I don't think one should look to get others to try to change the world. People will do what they want to do. Proving the value of your views is difficult, but probably easier than convincing those with the power to adapt them in a meaningful way to do just that.

You have to keep in mind that things look different from different perspectives. It seems that swapping to metric should be no big deal. In reality we already have things like the Mars Climate Orbiter. That was a $300 million probe launched by NASA in 1998. It disintegrated in Mars' orbit. What happened? The spacecraft was built to operate using SI units. Unfortunately one of the systems they were using to direct it was still using customary measurements. $300 million completely wasted because of what you'd think would be no big deal. It should be easy to just ensure all systems are communicating using the same systems of measurement, right? And NASA certainly has decently competent people working for them. But the thing is as things get larger and larger seemingly simple changes can often produce unexpectedly catastrophic side effects, or end up being far more difficult to synchronize than would ever be expected. Actually, this nature of software alone is probably a perfect microcosm of the nature of change in business as well.

So yeah, earn a ton of money doing whatever. And then use that money to do what you think ought be done. If you succeed, great you've changed the world. If not, try again.


> You know what the most amazing thing about Google is? 20 years ago they didn't exist.

This is kind of a tangent, but:

Today I learned that this recently became untrue.

https://www.google.com/doodles/googles-20th-birthday


That's the system working as designed by the ruling class. A person under so many personal pressures won't have the resources or energy to force the ruling class into fixing those bigger issues. It's perfect positive feedback to enable the rich to get richer.

I'm cynical too. I'm on a "good salary" but still can't afford my own home, and have made the decision to not have children mostly because I don't like the way anything is headed and don't see any change on the horizon.

When 8 people control more resources than 50% of the people on the planet [1], it's pretty clear that the evil overlords have already won.

I don't know how to fix it but I'm blown away by the apathy of most people towards the disgusting state of affairs.

From the finance sector bailout, which still blows my mind, to justice only for the rich and powerful while ridiculous numbers of people are put in jail for non-violent crime - which is sure to continue because of lobbying by the private prison industry, everyone knows it's unfair but the population has been beat into a feeling of powerlessness and somehow blaming each other and immigrants instead of the ridiculously greedy beyond comprehension 1% who are really responsible.

Everyone seems to be a crab in a bucket harboring secret dreams of eventually being part of the 1% while simultaneously not willing to admit the fact they are struggling much more than they should be with the amount of resources out there, unfortunately hoarded by a very small percentage of people who have successfully lobbied the politicians to continue the status quo.

So no, I don't think you're alone...

Edit: Some people have suggested some useful ideas here to do something about it at a local level. I'm going to try not to be so cynical and think of the problem being too big to fix, but it's difficult.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/jan/16/w...


Where the world needs changing is it's suicidal path towards extreme climate change.

I think we need to convince people to stop studying petroleum engineering and prepare for a different economy instead. If you'd like to work with me on this, please email me.

I'm a petroleum engineer and I think this is a really interesting idea. What effect do you think this might have on the O&G industry? I'm guessing it would force companies to raise wages to attract employees, hurting their bottom-line. This might, in a roundabout way, increase the cost of gasoline and make renewables more competitive.

A carbon tax might be a simpler approach, though I don't know what you could do on a personal level to influence that.


what do you have in mind?

1) Reach out to people studying Petroleum Engineering and convince them to study something else. This can be done through thing like websites, social media and handing out flyers. 2) Convince universities to end their Petroleum Engineering programs. This can involve petitions of students, faculty, alumni, and donors 3) Influence career counselors and make resources to help people study how to do things which are good for the world.

Your comments really spoke to me. While I can't say that all the topics you noted impact me to the same degree, there are certainly similarities in how I also feel about some of them. Perhaps my following plan of what I'm doing might help you, or give you some mild inspiration/ideas...

1. Lessen overall life expenses.

Why? Not so much to be financially independent/retire early (I think they call this "FiRE")...though that would be great...It is more about giving myself even more leverage in job searches and salary negotiations. If my expenses are lower, then getting a job with a non-profit/NGO whose mission i might believe allows me to think less about likely getting a lower-than-industry-standard salary.

2. Focus on a side hustle.

Now, this could be a side business, which - if successful - further detaches you from being beholden to a corporate entity...Or, it could simply be volunteering for a local cause that you believe in, or even civic engagement more with your local community (e.g. getting involved in local town/citizen meetings), etc. The trick here is that you have to keep levels manageable. You want this side hustle specifically for the purposes to only slightly distract you from any depressive feelings you gain from your dayjob. If this side hustle grows too cumbersome, the fear is that this could of course lead you to burnout, which could lead to more triggers for feelings of depression. Use this as a distraction BUT more so for seeking areas of inspiration. (Caveat: I am NOT a mental health professional/doctor.)

3. Make a plan for where you want to see yourself in 10 years.

Normally, people put the plan first...but here I'm putting as step #3. Honestly, this step does not have to await conclusion of the above steps...you merely have to at least be well underway on both steps. This is purposeful. Sometimes people really don't know what they want to do for their rest of their lives, or at least in the next few years. By preparing you - making you financially flexible (due to having such low expenses vs. your current salary), and pumping your energy levels up (via either side hustle or volunteering/civic activity - first, it sort puts you through mental basic training. Then after you are deep into the first 2 steps, begin to formalize a plan for your life, or better yet, a plan for the next 10 years of your life.

4. Execute on the plan.

At some point - most likely - you will stumble upon something that gives you fulfillment. It might be wanting to create a non-profit startup, or maybe you will decide to be a community organizer (not as a volunteer, but as your full-time profession), or maybe you will create your own for-profit company, but you will run it in a way that you feel good about/fulfills you. Whatever it is, execute on your plan; 'nuff said.

I have no idea if the above proposal will work for you; YMMV. (I myself am not even all the way through it yet!) I also will clearly state that i am NOT a life coach nor a mental health professional, nor a doctor...I'm basically just a human being posting a comment on hacker news...So, from one stranger to another, I surely hope my comments help, and I really hope that you find what fulfills you.


Study Buckminster Fuller. He's an engineer who had a kind of spiritual epiphany and dedicated his life to a kind of hyper-realist "Design Science Revolution".

In his lifetime he was one of the most famous (world-wide) Americans ever to have lived. He traveled around the world more than eighty times. There is a form of carbon named after him: Buckminsterfullerene.

Anyhow, he calculated that we would have the technology to save the world and fix everything by sometime in the 1970's. That happened, so now all our problems are basically psychological or spiritual.

It also so happens that a working psychology was invented/discovered in the mid 1970's and subsequently refined. It's called "Neurolinguistic Programming" (NLP) and it's basically the OS of the mind. Using NLP and off-the-shelf technology we can stop ourselves being foolish jerks and provide a high standard of living for everyone forever.

I suffered from crushing depression until my mid-20's and was totally cured, after considerable self-improvement, by a single intervention with Dr. Bandler (one of the co-founders of NLP) that lasted less than twenty minutes.

Let me repeat that in case I'm not being totally clear: A life-long depression that interfered with my ability to live a normal life (I was homeless for about four years after high school) was cured in a 20 minute session of NLP-informed hypnosis with Dr. Richard Bandler.

So, we have the psychological technology and the physical technology to solve all our problems.

It really is just a matter of getting the word out and putting our backs into it.

My specific recommendations to you are: 1. study NLP and go talk to practitioners, maybe even get some therapy; and 2. Study applied ecology (E.g. Permaculture) and start a small productive system (farm!) to begin to meet your personal needs in a economical and ecological manner.

"The plan was good, it was right, and no one had to get nailed to anything."

BTW, NLP is pretty easy to learn and it's a great career if you're at all good at it. An experienced therapist commands remuneration comparable to that of a computer programmer.

Last but not least, browse Rex Research: http://rexresearch.com/1index.htm There is a lot of weird crap in there but in between the crack-pottery you'll find mind-blowing cool technologies. The idea is to break out of your funk by confronting yourself with existing real-world solutions to all the various BS confronting us today.

My hobby is collecting powerful ideas, I can assure you the best things out there are really amazing and you haven't heard anything yet!


How do you find such an experienced therapist? What do you mean by "all our problems are basically psychological or spiritual"?

Why do we have to slog through crackpottery for insight?


> How do you find such an experienced therapist?

I did a lot of work on myself before I could even go seek out a therapist. When I did, I tried several different people (six IIRC) for a couple of sessions each until I found someone who seemed to be able to really help me. That helped a lot, but I was still suffering and had a hard time functioning. Then I attended a week-long seminar by Dr. Bandler, the "twenty minutes" I mentioned above happened on stage. I volunteered to participate in a demo and Bandler picked me. Subjectively I thought I was only up there for a few minutes. Someone else told me later that it was more like twenty minutes.

Anyhow, here are some NLP-specific sites to start to find a therapist. Good luck!

https://www.purenlp.com/the-society-of-neurolinguistic-progr...

http://www.neurolinguisticprogramming.com/

https://richardbandler.com/

(Don't be put off by style, go for the substance.)

> What do you mean by "all our problems are basically psychological or spiritual"?

We have all the technology we need to supply all of our needs if we deploy it efficiently. The limiting factor is not physics. (I would say our problems today are spiritual, but my point is they're not physical.)

Quoting Bucky:

> It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a 'higher standard of living than any have ever known.' It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary and henceforth unrationalizable as mandated by survival.

> Think of it. We are blessed with technology that would be indescribable to our forefathers. We have the wherewithal, the know-it-all to feed everybody, clothe everybody, and give every human on Earth a chance. We know now what we could never have known before - that we now have the option for all humanity to make it successfully on this planet in this lifetime. Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.

> The things to do are: the things that need doing: that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done. Then you will conceive your own way of doing that which needs to be done - that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character that has acquired a superficial array of behaviors induced or imposed by others on the individual.

I want to emphasize that Bucky was an engineer. These are statements backed by science and calculation.

> Why do we have to slog through crackpottery for insight?

The simple answer is that Mr. Nelson, the proprietor of Rex Research, has eclectic tastes.

The deeper answer is that it's not at all easy to tell the revolutionary from the ridiculous in every case.

A lot of these things are obviously stupid (fuel-from-water); some are obviously important (the silicon-nitrogen cycle of Plichta[1]); many are interesting but may not be economical (Aluminum Lamp[2]; FanWing[3]).

There may well be the next revolution lurking in the Rex Research database, and if so it probably looks like a deformed duck.

But anyway, we don't need more technology, we can apply what we've got to solve our problems (but we have lots more tech than we even know about.)

[1] "Novel concept for generating power via an inorganic nitrogen cycle" http://rexresearch.com/plichtasilane/plichta.html

[2] "microcavity plasma lamps ... built of aluminum foil, sapphire and small amounts of gas" http://rexresearch.com/eden/eden.htm

[3] "The FanWing looks like someone has put the blades of a combine harvester behind a helicopter cockpit and forgotten about the rest of the fuselage." http://rexresearch.com/fanwing/peebles.htm


I think this makes a good deal of sense.

The tech job market is extremely buoyant in the present age, meaning very few programmers are in a position where they have to settle for a job they dislike just to make ends meet.

I mean, every tech company talks about wanting engaged, passionate, proud employees - so why settle for doing work you can't take pride in when you could switch to work you could be proud of, and probably get a raise while you're at it?


That you probably won't get a raise (rather, a huge pay cut) is one thing; another problem is, when you start looking for positive impact in the world, the list of companies to work for starts to rapidly diminish. I tried that, and for now I had to settle for companies that are not actively trying to make the world a worse place.

In my experience, there's loads of businesses that aren't doing ethically questionable stuff.

No doubt it depends on the range of things you could take pride in doing, which varies from person to person!


Honestly, I'd say it could well be a majority of businesses that aren't doing unethical things. Yes, it's easy to be cynical about the world and think how the likes of Google/Facebook/whoever manipulate people or abuse data collection or about the actions of Monsanto/casino companies/oil companies/diamond miners etc, but is that really how most companies act? Not really, most are just selling a product or service. At worst, most companies seem to be morally 'neutral', neither inclined towards underhanded/world ruining tactics nor charitable ones.

So yeah, you could find a job doing something that isn't morally questionable pretty easily, even in most fields.


This actually points most at developers being considerably underpaid.

This makes the most sense.

Consider how every industry can benefit from having a developer doing job automation, looking at data for optimization, or making new products.

The demand is ferocious.

I don't understand why developer wages are lower outside the US. Shouldnt developers everywhere be changing local industries?


Because you can’t get a raise - the big companies pay the most money.

And for the good paying but "immoral" jobs there's a queue. The rest of the world is hungering for >200k$ IT Jobs, especially in Europe where the competence is also there.

Not necessarily true. There are some series A/B startups that offer extremely competitive salaries and stock options for top talent.

And also, I think he/she means if you can't get behind what Facebook is doing, maybe jump to Apple who "supposedly" have security and privacy as their top priorities and in the mean time receive a raise.


>>There are some series A/B startups that offer extremely competitive salaries and stock options for top talent.

Not everyone is top talent though - and I don't think there's anything wrong with being an average programmer and not wanting to work on morally wrong projects.


Agreed, of course, but also don't think anyone suggested that there was anything wrong with it.

Indeed - you can jump to another big company.

This really needs to change. Do we all need to negotiate raises into our salary requirements? Tell them we expect no less than X% increase each year? Otherwise, what should have been my raise is going straight back to shareholders.

Every person, tech or not, should evaluate what their work is contributing to and they should evaluate if they can ethically and morally accept what the company is doing or standing for.

In the end, I have to be able to look myself in the mirror and be accountable for my actions, even if that would mean to forego money, prestige, etc.


True that. What I learned is that the official mission, say save the climate, of a given company is not enough tu judge that. I know companies in the renewable energy sector that are doing some shady stuff, the only guy getting rich is the CEO/founder regardless of how many bancrupcies occur. And the employees trying to work in "good" industry are just taken advantage of by some rich guy.

In general I like the goals and most of the techniques of agile, but what management gets out of it that I really don’t like is the ability to keep the engineers nearly permanently off balance.

The constant tempo means the act of stopping to ask these questions has a real and highly visible cost. You essentially have to be a whistleblower to say no to things.

It is, I believe, the ugly reason why management has become so enthusiastic about sprints.


> Every person, tech or not, should evaluate what their work is contributing to and they should evaluate if they can ethically and morally accept what the company is doing or standing for.

> In the end, I have to be able to look myself in the mirror and be accountable for my actions, even if that would mean to forego money, prestige, etc.

How would you like people to square this with providing for their families? No offense to coal miners or well operators, but I don't think they're willing to destitute their families over climate change -- what's a better world for their grandchildren if their children die starving in the miners arms?

More to the point, I think the problem is "we as a society", not the individual. We're not willing to give slight inconveniences for massive increases in energy efficency. Look at how we design our cities and communities. People drive 2+ton vehicles upwards of 2 hours each day to go to work instead of living closer to the office and biking or taking public transport. (Many first and second ring suburbs of many/most/all cities have decent (or better) school systems than in the exurbs.)

Do we really need to consume all of the plastic junk or waste nearly as much food as we do? Do we need to be so wasteful of energy in our homes? Do we need to keep stores and offices frozen in the dead of summer? There is a lot of really low hanging fruit (that people as a whole are unwilling to do because it's the slightest of inconvenience or expects them to acknowledge the world they live in), before we ask people to give up their jobs.

Do you think coal miners, well operators, or big box retail associates wouldn't want a safer or more fulfilling job? We need to look at our excess consumption before pointing fingers at people for taking a job we find dirty (in the moral sense.)


> How would you like people to square this with providing for their families?

With a capable human brain, like we all have! Just because a decision is hard doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to make the right one—all people making decisions have been faced with this, including many people commonly considered evil.

Computers are levers, and developers are the fulcrum. We have quite a bit of negotiation power.

Finally, I think it’s naive to think that these systemic problems can be addressed with concerted individual effort, not by addressing the underlying problems. Maybe I have some sympathy for the coal miners after all.


You're still begging the question. How does one choose between doing something supports a questionably moral company (and what isn't a company without any moral baggage?) and keeping your family fed and warm?

> Just because a decision is hard doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to make the right [choice]

I think this is telling: you believe there is a correct choice in all situations, from all points of view.

I have no problems installing Google Analytics or AdWords on a site if my employer asks me to, but I personally run with ad blockers. The "right" decision in my case is to keep my family fed and warm because I don't think I can find a position at a company that doesn't do advertising or analytics and my own attempts to start my own companies have failed. I'm not willing to take the risk of long-term unemployment or to take a significantly lower paying job at a company that does the exact same thing (e.g. advertising).

So please tell me why my decision is unequivocally wrong, especially in light of the ability of anyone to run an adblocker and that we adhere to all relevant regulations, e.g. GDPR. Additionally, please tell me where I (and everyone who doesn't like advertising) can find a living wage from a company that does not advertise or perform analytics (or do any other morally questionable activity).


Assuming your dichotomy, you should lie in wait, and at any opportunity reduce and undo the harm you're contributing to. You may well already be doing this.

If you prescribe to "the end justifies the means", you can stay fully apathetic (blocking out the guilt and shame). Worst case is you find you can't wash your hands of what you've done as you're old and dying (blockage breaks), and one could say it's too late to care then. Best case, you were worrying needlessly and the problem wasn't one (change in perspective). Bitter to me.

Maybe it isn't even a "problem" or "evil" to you, and you're reacting to your perception of "someone else's perspective on evil being forced on you" while you don't consider it as such.

On dichotomies: it's usually a lot more interesting to find a third option or to synthesize the two sides to get to a new position. So perhaps:

* "compensate for your contribution to the evil by reducing it on a larger scale, e.g. company-wide"

* "reduce expansion of evil in the company and support it's reduction"

* "transition to running your own company"

* "pay back society in some form or other once you have sufficient financial security for your family and yourself".

Maybe you have to do this for now, and it's understandable you can't consider the society above your family or yourself, but it can't truly be the final solution?

IMO, there's no cause or outcome where you are justified in working for an "evil" company, especially long-term as you'll inevitably contribute to the company's success (lest you be fired).

Do you think there's a way to consider yourself forced to contribute to evil without running up a debt?

(I mean "evil" from your own personal perspective.)


The decisions we make in life, and our difficulty making them, defines us. I can’t help you define your morality here.

You're still begging the question and acting like there is a fixed morality.

Nobody is begging any question. The answer is that it is for YOU to decide. I'm sorry if that's not a simple, yes/no answer for you, but the world isn't like that.

I'm really at a loss to understand your reply.

My original question was "How would you like people to square [being accountable for the actions of their employer] with providing for their families?"

You've yet to say anything except implying that there is a single, black-and-white moral compass that everyone is capable of following in its entirety. There are no employers that have no moral shortcomings. Telling people that they're immoral for not destitute themselves is rather pointless and leads to a nowhere discussion because it started nowhere.

Moreover, it's a fairly pointless expectation that everyone is I don't know what country you live in, but I can ask with certainty the same with respect to citizenship: How can you be a citizen of a country that's perpetrated atrocities. In that case, it's even more clear that there is no option -- there is no country that hasn't committed atrocities.


"My original question was "How would you like people to square [being accountable for the actions of their employer] with providing for their families?""

And the answer to that is, "It is up to those people to decide that. No one else can do it for them."

"You've yet to say anything except implying that there is a single, black-and-white moral compass that everyone is capable of following in its entirety. "

Wrong. Nobody but you has done that. You are the one demanding answers for how people square these things."


Now that I understand the confusion....

A) I do not hold a firm position on moral absolutism.

B) All I am saying is that there are so many variables that go into employment that you need to make this moral calculus yourself.... but simply having a family should not be an excuse to avoid the moral calculus completely. You often still have choice.


Begging the question would be something like you disagreeing that any choice exists at all.

You know, for some reason I had it in my head that "begging" meant avoiding. Off to reëducate myself!

Common mistake!

>>You're still begging the question. How does one choose between doing something supports a questionably moral company (and what isn't a company without any moral baggage?) and keeping your family fed and warm?

It all comes down to a very simple (although fundamental) question about your morality and character: do you believe ends justify the means?


> It all comes down to a very simple (although fundamental) question about your morality and character: do you believe ends justify the means?

It's also a question of morality: I obviously don't believe that all morally distasteful things are equal. AdWords is significantly less disasteful than my family starving.

I would bet that most people, probably even including you, find driving much less distastful than going without or moving to an area with and using public transit, even though it's significantly more efficient. Since moving out on my own, I've purposely have always lived on good transit lines and fight for better transit.

I would bet that most people, probably even including you, are OK purchasing cheap, foreign made items without a thought to the working conditions and environmental conditions that purchase is helping to enforce. I specifically seek out items made in countries with environmental regulations at least as strong as the US'.

I would bet that most people, probably even including you, are OK purchasing food raised in unsustainable ways, or that is significantly out of season. I became vegetarian and strive to buy as much as I can from local farms.

These are much more important to me than if I install an AdWords script on a website that's trivially easy to block by the end user. Do I wish I could convince people to use less invasive forms of advertising? Yes. Have I been successful? Not really. Have I found anywhere to work that doesn't have the same practices? No.

Please don't play this game of "just because you do something I don't like I'm morally better than you" game. We're all flawed and not one of us is living up completely of our moral standards.


Unfortunately, the core business of Facebook, Twitter, and Google (driving engagement) is probably contributing to tearing the US apart politically. It's not just individual projects, it's at the very core of what they are. I don't see a happy ending here. I assume that the same thing is happening in other countries.

It turns out that a lot of deep-pocketed organizations are willing to pay a lot of money to tech companies in exchange for the capability to manipulate large populations of people.

The notion of a technology company selling products or services directly to customers hasn't gone away, but it's starting to feel quaint and nostalgic, like it belongs in a Norman Rockwell illustration.


That is more an information company thing really and so not old - look at newspapers for one. And the cure is worse than the disease. Besides, say what you will about Google and social media but they haven't started multiple major wars.

For the over the decade I've been a software engineer I've always strived to work in products with a value proposition for the end user that I can understand.

I can't understand how anyone could work without this understanding and not get their soul crushed. Maybe I'm just sensitive or underpaid.


I enjoy my job (a lot), but I work to live, not live to work. As long as my job pays me well enough and I am only work ~40 hours a week with a flexible schedule I could care less what I am programming most of the time.

My passions can live in my free time.


Similar, I make a pretty boring product, but at home I'm building a dishwasher, a finance app, and I run a popular website.

I wouldnt work for a defense contractor, but I have a high paying, 'boring' day job.


Sometimes your don't have the luxury to choose your work.

Yes, but this is a much more rare scenario for techies than other white collar professionals.

Well that depends doesn't it. If you got skill and motivation to choose between gigs, that's fine, you'll most likely just start your own if you don't find anything fitting. Those you hear alot about.

Succeeding is not easier in tech than anything else, given that success means doing exactly what you want and feeling good about it.

I do interview people and try to find techies that fit in our org, but it's tough even if there's available people.


This is being said for Programmers, yet a good portion of HN goes out of their way to tell poor people they can just get a new job. Very contradictory!

I guess you can't talk for everybody (which happens a lot in the comments for what I've seen, HN does this, HN does that). The commenters here may be very biased though. To be clear this article seems to refer to SF workers, but I guess the same applies there even if the pay is fat. You need to generate cash to pay for the hefty rents. I should add a disclaimer here that this is just an assumption based on what I've read though.

Maybe someone could chime in on how easy it is to get a job with good morale in SF? I would imagine that it's like looking at the trees but only seeing the forest.


> For the over the decade I've been a software engineer I've always strived to work in products with a value proposition for the end user that I can understand.

> I can't understand how anyone could work without this understanding and not get their soul crushed. Maybe I'm just sensitive or underpaid.

Well, if someone's paying you, there is always a value proposition for the end user :)

More to what I think your point is, though, most people do not view themselves through the lens of their work. I don't see myself as a guy who writes ecommerce software; I see myself as a spouse, father, child, uncle, and someone always trying new things and expand my horizons. Ecommerce just pays the bills and enables that all to happen.


I left a job partly because I felt too dumb to understand the use cases for the product I was writing code for (extremely high-end Test & Measurement). It's very uncomfortable. Maybe not the same kind of "understanding", but this kind of thing can extend beyond morals, at least in my experience.

Unpopular opinion: this is why the "dudebros" and their like keep getting hired. They are more than happy to do their work, accept their salary, and move on, and not have to turn everything into "changing the world"

Even before the "dudebros", i'd argue most scientists and engineers didn't really care too much about the moral implications of their work. Guns, bombs etc... were all invented by brilliant minds, we'd like to think we as a society have collectively evolved cause we have small machines in our hands with all the world's knowledge but esp in the usa, looking outside you see that nothing has really changed that much in the way humans think.

> most scientists and engineers didn't really care too much about the moral implications of their work

Have you considered that they might care very much about the moral implications of their work — and be proud to contribute to their nation's armed might?


> to contribute to their nation's armed might

I would extend that to the hope for peace through strength (might).


Of course not, this is silicon valley.

I mean, scientists for the Manhattan Project were remorseful after the fact at least. In general though, scientists are primarily driven by curiosity with little regard for the safety of themselves or others. If IRBs didn't exist, I assure you that some experiment of dubious ethics would be in progress right now without it even occurring to the primary investigator that it might be morally problematic (it's important to note that with some researchers, moral issues just don't click mentally and there's not a question of malice). Even with an IRB, you still get studies like the Facebook mood manipulation fiasco at Cornell [0].

[0] https://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2014/jul/0...


I don't see the connection between dudebros and working to get a salary and not much more.

Dudebros was purposefully in quotes -- basically in reference to these days if you aren't a bleeding heart leftist and being actively engaged in being an ally, or other social justice cause (or at least give the facade that you are on social media) you are guilty by association, or at least placed in a less advantageous position versus your similar compatriot who is following the cultural winds. Gone are the times where you can keep your political beliefs at home, which ironically is now a form of workplace discrimination. That's something I think we will find out that previous generations got right.

The previous generation you're referring to is one that actively discriminated against women and people of color in the work force... probably wasn't hard for them to keep politics out of the work place because there was more homogeneity.

Discriminating against those who hold discriminatory views is different than discriminating against people based on their ethnicity or gender. And yes, I fully understand that what is or isn't a "discriminatory viewpoint" can be subjective. My point is that it's still a false equivalency to say that discriminating against someone who thinks women are lesser than them is the same as discriminating against women.


> The previous generation you're referring to is one that actively discriminated against women and people of color in the work force.

Some part of the previous generation did that. Some, obviously, did not, just as some part of the current generation continue to do that, and some do not. In some cases there is a real, legitimate argument that the discrimination has reversed -- there is a lot of discrimination and exclusion going on in this country all in the name of tolerance, inclusion and diversity.

In any case I appreciate you making my point for me.


It appears you're saying that only "100%" and "0%" states are distinguishable from each other, and that the universe of the superposition of states boils down to "some do and some do not", which are all indistinguishable from each other.

Can you clarify that that's what you're asserting? That's what it looks like, and I sincerely hope I'm wrong, because that's a very weird hill to defend.


What exactly makes one a "dudebro"? The overwhelming majority of usages of this kind of terminology (and related words like "brogrammer") seem to fall into either of two categories: slights against co-workers that work out, play sports, and engage in other kinds of physical "dude" activities - usually motivated by attempts to justify the unhealthy lifestyles of the words' users. Or as a derogatory term for men that don't fit the typical Silicon Valley mold of "geek" culture.

Neither of which necessarily relates to one's willingness to effect change in the world.


It is about as meaningful as SJW essentially in that it means what the user wants it to. It could mean everything that you said. Or it could mean someone who is a crass overgrown fratboy stereotype with no interests beyond money, alcohol, and sex and someone who works out and enjoys beer but can moderate themselves and have serious interests isn't one. It could be a flat out term of prejudice or cognitive armor to avoid listening to someone because they are too masculine.

Not wanting to change the world makes me a "dudebro"?


It is what he said, you even linked the correct logic behind it.

He said dudebros don't want to change the world. He didn't say everyone who doesn't want to change the world is a dudebro.

Yeah I really doubt that, especially at a place like Google that has worked very hard make their work culture be the anthesis of a "dudebro". If anything, it's the modern left-leaning liberal millennial that wants to "make a change in the world" and to perform "meaningful work" that are getting lured in, propping up these companies, and are now the ones wondering how they got to working for these companies willingly work with the Chinese on censorship projects.

"Unpopular opinion" is that people want to work for money?

[Reposting my comment shared on the earlier thread, I guess this one wasn’t marked as dupe]

“In June, more than 100 students at Stanford, M.I.T. and other top colleges signed a pledge saying they would turn down job interviews with Google unless the company dropped its Project Maven contract. (Google said that month that it would not renew the contract once it expired.) “We are students opposed to the weaponization of technology by companies like Google and Microsoft,” the pledge stated. “Our dream is to be a positive force in the world. We refuse to be complicit in this gross misuse of power.”

This is an incredibly powerful statement. A bunch of students getting together brought Google to its knees.

Now these brave students might consider standing up en masse to Facebook and its rapidly shrinking signing bonuses before FB moves too fast and breaks reality again.


I'm confused on both of your points.

1. How is this powerful, in the slightest? 100 students is less than a rounding error.

2. How are these students in any way brave?


1. Powerful in terms of impact. Google discontinued the project, no doubt due in some part to the protest.

2. Brave in turning down lucrative job offers for moral reasons. Many, many engineers currently work at Big Tech co’s with similar doubts and fears. But to risk your salary and job security on ethical grounds, that’s what I call brave.


What you posted doesn't say they turned down job offers, it says they weren't going to interview at Google. Realistically, the only risk to them is if a company goes out of their way to look for that pledge during the hiring process, then decides not to hire them. They didn't lose a job or any income from what they did.

That’s a fair distinction. Still, choosing not to interview at one of the top 2 highest-paying employers does indicate some sacrifice. I’m not saying we should nominate these guys for the Nobel peace prize, but their stance does merit some respect.

Knees is overselling it.

Yeah, I’m probably being a little dramatic. They didn’t cripple GOOG or their business model. But still, getting Google to back down on a significant product direction is noteworthy.

We do? Maybe a tiny fringe does. Most tech workers want to know the same thing nytimes employees do. The salary and benefits. That's it. That's what workers care about at the end of the day.

Does the nytimes tech team ask "Why are we spamming HN everyday for"? I doubt it. They just do what they are paid to do.

The same thing for all tech workers and all workers in general. The construction worker building a luxury tower isn't asking "why are we building this for". He just wants to get paid and paid well.

"Do no evil" is no more real in the tech world as "fair and balanced" or "all the news fit to print" is real in the news world. It's just empty slogans for PR.


They sure have strong opinions about working on Government projects but none of them have any issues creating tech that intrusively monitors and manipulates people for the purposes of serving them advertisements. What heroes they are...

You can directly blame the people who developed this stuff, the programmers, most perfectly able to move jobs with no real loss in economic stability.

I think it's one of the most immoral and unethical jobs that could be taken today.


Which is most us don't care for their virtue signaling.

This trend is nothing more than a reflection of the fact that unemployment is at record lows. It does not represent a new, heightened morality in employees (that would persist even if the job market soured, for example).

For money, my dear, for money. Is there any other reason for a company to exist? The stuff like "do no evil" or "we are green" is just a smoke screen. At the end they will do everything for money.

That has been the answer for last era. I think that’s why tech workers are starting to ask what we’re building it for. Because we’re here at this point because building “for money” is no longer good enough. Because what’s the point of having money when we’re cancer ridden and polluting our planet, and despite living in a rich planet people are starving, and the very resources that feed us are being destroyed. What’s the point of a pile of money when there is nothing else left?

> despite living in a rich planet people are starving

A overused rhetoric that does not hold much ground when you realize that poverty is decreasing fast everywhere around, and faster than we expected it to.

https://ourworldindata.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/World-...


The way we measure a "decreasing poverty" is extremely laden politically (like most things that are supposedly "neutrally evaluated" are supposed to be, just because they're represented as spreadsheets of numbers).

We consider that a villager living from subsistence farming and therefore having almost no use for money to be part of the very poor, less than 1$/day crowd.

Take this same peasant and send it working for some multinational company harvesting cocoa or sugar cane, under horrible, exploitative conditions for 2$ a day, and bam! poverty has been halved!

Ditto if you send him and his family in some shanty town collecting plastic on a rubbish pile, feeding on refuse : he's now making 3$ a day, poverty decreased again!

What is called "lifting out of poverty" is actually "making them a cog of a worldwide, money-based economy". That's a mixed blessing, to say the least.


If subsistence farming is preferable to being a cog in a market economy, why aren’t people switching in the opposite direction?

Well, for one, that would require you to be able to have land to do so. I would be shocked if many of these people had an actual, freely available choice on the matter.

Assume you live in a "first-world" nation, how do you propose to become a subsistence farmer?

Buy cheap land out in the middle of nowhere and start farming enough to provide food for yourself and some excess to pay expenses. There is a reason people don't do that.

The thing is, being a cog in the capitalist wheel really _is_ preferable to subsistence farming. The reality of subsistence farming is that you're living with no access to healthcare, education, often subject to food insecurity, and often lacking in basic utilities like electricity and clean water. Subsistence farming isn't all hunky dory like the Hobbits in the Shire. There's a reason people choose to escape it when given the chance

I have no idea how to find it again, but I read an article about indigenous peoples being forced off their land and into the city. They went from hunting, gathering and fishing and a life they loved to terrible slum conditions and racially motivated violence against them, up to and including murder.

They weren't actually subsistence farmers, but they did live without money before this was done to them. They were incredibly bitter.

And people forced to become cogs don't automatically gain meaningful access to things like healthcare and education, plus the education of the city people can involve horrible prejudice that is actively harmful to them for various reasons.


I get to see that "rhetoric" live when I travel around the world.

It still exists in extremely large numbers, so it's not 'overused rhetoric'. Please don't dismiss an extremely large issue as 'rhetoric'.

Half of the worlds population lives in poverty, and ~650m live in extreme poverty [1][2].

[1] https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-global-p...

[2] https://worldpoverty.io/


I was mostly opposing the view that "people are starving". It's well known that mass starvation is pretty much gone from the face of the Earth. Now the only places where people really die from starvation are conflict zones, or places hit by natural disasters. I am willing to admit there is are still "hunger" problems in many places, and malnutrition too, but hunger is not starvation.


What metric is that measuring? The standard of living? Or the amount of money people have? Because those are 2 very different things. What about access to affordable health care? Access to clean water? Access to nutritious food? Poverty measures so many things. Not just having money and wealth.


Yes, poverty is decreasing. That doesn't change the fact that people are starving, even right here in the United States, the richest nation on earth.

No, poverty is not decreasing everywhere. The graph shows absolute poverty decreasing.*

Meanwhile in most developed countries, inequality is grotesque and the consequent poverty is on the rise.

*Absolute poverty would decrease much faster if we exploited and expropriated from developing countries a little less.


Absolute poverty is the important measure. If I'm hungry, I'm hungry, no matter what my neighbours have. But if I have a 50" flat screen TV, and my neighbours have a 100" flat screen TV, that inequality does not make me poor. I can still watch TV.

The big expense right now isn't 50" TVs, it's housing - and the cost of housing is very much affected by how much your neighbours can afford to spend.

Then the solution is to build more housing, so that supply increases the point of making it cheap again. A lot of housing scarcity is caused by zoning regulations.

Wrong. If you do not have have what the average person in your society has, you'll struggle to participate in your society (in an absolute sense) and you'll be treated as an inferior, which does all kinds of harm (in an absolute sense).

If I live aboard a ship, I am not in poverty because I do not own a car, because in my society, you do not need a car. But if I live in a city with no public transport where you need a car to get around, but I can't afford one, I absolutely am.

Poverty apologists always bring up TV as an example, as if poverty is about optional extras rather than basic dignity, respect and participation.


You seem here to be asserting that "not feeling/being inferior to the people around you" is some kind of intrinsic human right?

Technically there are no intrinsic human rights and it's up to us as a society to define them.

I don't think you really want to go down that road... Historically, most societies have "chosen" a set of expansive "rights" for the top and limited rights for the bottom. I say "chosen" because most societies had it chosen for them by whoever conquered them, or at best, the lower classes had it chosen for them by those with power.

Rights are human concepts, they aren't intrinsic.

It's about feeling inferior, it's about being treated inferior, often violently so.

For instance, what happens when you try and retrieve groceries from a supermarket when you cannot afford to pay for them.


I think you mean absolutely relatively poor.

Many people do think about starving kids when they hear "poverty" though. There would be much less outcry in media if everybody realized it's about kids having smaller TVs rather than truly starving.

There's a running joke in my country that US poverty is our middle class - only two cars and a small house.


> “for money” is no longer good enough

It is still plenty good enough but employee want to be paid in the currency their employers uses.

If you trust your employer to do things for the greater good, you can accept less money, or even no money at all like with the charities. If your employer is simply pursuing the highest profit, employee want the biggest amount of money.

Banking never could claim a "Moral High Ground", so they compensated with cold hard cash. SV is loosing its and needs to align its salaries accordingly.


For money is good enough for me. You probably doubt me, but I'm not callous, mercenary or indifferent to the experiences of others - I'm just buying into a system that is objectively working. Spend some time clicking through https://ourworldindata.org/ ... we're not doing as badly as you seem to suggest.

Yeah, mankind is in overall in the best shape it's ever been, and the numbers reflect that across many metrics.

But what about climat change? We've improved so much across so many areas, surely that'll offset a few more degrees across the globe? It's just one metric among so many where we're doing great.

What if it doesn't? How will we cope in 50 years with hundreds of millions of landless refugees? Right now we can't. Are we doing so great that in 50 years we will?


While I agree we should be asking, "what are we building this for", it is a two edge sword. There are a LOT of BS tech jobs that may go away because people are asking this question.

Sounds like an opportunity for someone to build the tech to cure cancer and filter pollution.

"All technical problems of sufficient scope or impact are actually political problems first." - Eleanor Saitta

Water filtration is generally old tech. It's infrastructure. It just needs someone to pay for it.

Cure for cancer involves molecular biology and filtering pollution involves heterogeneous catalysis. Where does programming come into play in any direct way to these solutions? I understand that tech is involved indirectly, but so is the coffee that is served in laboratories to keep scientists working.

> Where does programming come into play in any direct way to these solutions?

* Literally every piece of lab equipment that uses any kind of controller/control board (most of them)... has needed programming of one sort of another. Hmmm, with the exception of older analog gear maybe (decades ago?).

* Every single piece of data collection, storage, analysis, and control software is created through programming.

* Even communication of results among team members, to management, to the public, often requires programming.


I agree programming is involved with all solutions that will come from sciences. But considering how many people use macs, powerpoints, and word in those industries, I think those who are working at companies like Apple and Microsoft are contributing just as much as somebody who works as programmer at start-up involving heterogeneous catalysis.

Human Genome Project? Tunmmor detecting AI? Global weather simulations?

I was under the impression that pre 20th century companies just existed as a legal and organizational convenience in order to help collect a number of people with similar goals rather than to solely make a profit.

If anyone knows what I'm trying to say and can put it in clearer words that'd be lovely, I think I'm missing an important linking idea here. Anyway...

Imagine there are two paths from A to B (the left and right path). 100 people walk from A to B. Half take the left and half the right, and none of them have any information not in this paragraph.

There are wolves on the left path. Everyone who travels it gets eaten. Now, at B, we have 50 people. They all chose the right path voluntarily, they all made a choice. None of them knew about the wolves though. How do we catagorise this situation in term of having and not having made a "real" choice? I argue that in practice, whatever the people were thinking when they chose B was irrelevant, because they didn't know the thing that actually mattered and they didn't have a proxy variable for it.

With that setup, I'd argue companies that "help collect a number of people with similar goals rather than to solely make a profit" are a lot like my right path, in that the people may not have been focused on maximising profits, but if they didn't achieve them they wouldn't have lasted long. By evolution, there will be a decided drift towards companies maximising profits even if all the individuals actually making the choices think they are doing something real (or I suppose, the converse where they think that their job is meaningless).


This is something like "survivorship bias", but that term is usually applied to extreme outliers like CEOs rather that average case people like you're doing.

The East India Company (amongst many others) did heinous stuff solely to make a profit.

If anything, the drive for profit is a little less now.


I'm not sure the drive is less so much as PR is a thing, better regulation is a thing and the internet makes corporations misdeeds much more transparent.

This is one of the reasons among many I regard the decline in proper journalism as so worrying.


That's not right. USA Antitrust law was invented around 1900 to fight excesses is service of profile.

A corporation could be chartered for any reason. What is true is that in the early 19th century there was a legal pretense that corporations had to justify their charter to the government in order to be approved and renewed.

One of the very first corporations in USA was Alexander Hamilton's bank, that ran a water utility as a front operation. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Manhattan_Company

The old days weren't as honorable as the stories whitewash.

But not-just-for-profit corporations have existed for a long time.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/B_Corporation_(certification... is a modern trend.


> I was under the impression that pre 20th century companies just existed as a legal and organizational convenience in order to help collect a number of people with similar goals rather than to solely make a profit.

You might want to have a look at an history book then. Companies had slaves, got kids working in mines, got to use the government to shout their workers who rebelled because they had no rights whatsoever, or just straight up used private armies. It was all pre 20th century already. If all this was not solely to make a profit, I don't know what it was.

Furthermore the great majority of big ventures were family driven. There were not formal associations between "people with similar goals" who weren't blood related.


I'm curious. I've read a few (mostly fictional) accounts of early companies, and the drive for profit seemed stronger (if anything) than it is now.

I've read just about every non-fiction account I can get my hands on about business in the ~1850-1930 era. The drive for profit during the industrial revolution, was radically stronger than it is today. The giants of industry back then openly lusted after success, it was culturally acceptable to behave that way (right up to the point where you were dominant, then the people turned against you). They made no apologies for the all-out pursuit of profit back then. Rockefeller dressed it up slightly, by proclaiming that god wanted him to be rich, that to be wealthy was glorious. The so called robber barons lived in openly ostentatious ways that today's rich in the US would mostly never dream of; today most of them go out of their way to pretend they're not so rich and to hide it. Open shows of wealth today are considered closer to vulgarity, crude, disgusting, etc. Back then, it was far less widely believed that wealth was stolen from 'the people'; today, it's widely believed that the rich are all thieves in some considerable manner. There was no welfare state at all, income taxes were extremely low or non-existent, so the accumulation of wealth happened far faster. Companies often paid extremely high dividends 10 to 20 times higher than is normal today.

Tactics, when it came to dealing with competition, were far beyond anything you see today. There were few regulations in the US, so companies were free to devise all manners of schemes to best their competitors. The treatment of labor in the pursuit of profit, was similarly far more brutal (there's really no comparison, Amazon's warehouse workers are treated like kings compared to sweatshop workers back then).


Do you have a short list of book recommendations?

Companies began as a means to have an endeavour progress while the people involved changed [0]. The nature of the endeavour could be profit, but by no means had to be.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporation#History


Personally, it should not negatively impact lives. For example, I can't see myself saying "I will take this job for the money, and the gun I help engineered is used to kill humans during combat".

I don't work in the field and don't know exactly how I'd personally feel about it, but I can see a very strong argument that even one of the most heinous weapons every deployed on Earth likely saved a net million-plus lives.

If that is the case, is it moral to refuse to work on the Manhattan Project if asked?

(I also agree that working on the next generation of the atomic bomb or the next revision of the M16/AK47 does not hold the same promise of saving lives, of course...)


Framed like that, it's basically the trolley problem[0]. For which I don't think there's a good answer.

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


There is. It's a solved problem. The only issue is lack of info (many evil people vs 1 good) but most people get stuck because of a "no compromises" attitude and lack of will to make that decision.

Modern society has already made the choice though. We sacrifice a few for the many all the time, and they are called heros and duly celebrated.


>One of the most heinous weapons every deployed on Earth likely saved a net million-plus lives.

It's really an argument that can't be made because the other event never happened. The weapon killed people, that's it. I don't know if there's a moral side at all?


The projections for the invasion of Japan during WWII were that there would be millions of casualties. The battles in the Pacific were some of the most fiercely fought of the war, and invading Japan would have been even more so.

You are totally right, I am oversimplifying it.

Do you know of any text, interviews or discussions with any of the scientists on the Manhattan project on the morality of their work?


It looks like this might be a good source: https://www.manhattanprojectvoices.org/oral-histories

Agree you should not work for something that is not align with your moral and personal believe, as for me I can totally see myself saying "I will take this job for the money, and the gun I help engineered is used to kill humans during combat".

Say I have an idea for how I want the world to be. I don't care about money at all, but my vision is too big to execute by myself. How do I get people to help me without forming a company?

Tell people about it.

Let it grow from being just your vision to become a small group's vision.


The point of business should be for the betterment of humanity, not money

That is what NGOs are for.

That literally defies the very definition of the word business.

Get your dirty socialism out of here./s

I think the quote goes recognition and praise trumps sex and money.

Guys join the army for what? Loose their lives for what?


They join the army to protect their nation and the privileges we have. So your family can have dinner at night without worrying about people from a neighboring land busting in and stealing your property , kidnapping murdeing raping family etc

They are people who are signing up for a job whose work benefits are medium probability of making their spouses widows and single parents overnight


They also join because of solid signing bonuses, good training, GI Bill, and a good resume item. Let’s not kid ourselves about the economic make-up of our enlisted military.

I am not saying that they did not sign up for the other reasons as well, and by saying this I don’t think I am undermining their commitment to serve or their intent, but in a volunteer force it is also about money, and we’re going to have to pay a lot more to meet recruitment targets.


Ceremony and tradition, parades and costume, medals and ribbons exist for what reason?

It surprised me how many believed on the "don't be evil" motto, keeping customers and board members happy is all that counts.

The current obsession that companies exist solely for making money for shareholders is an historical aberration. If that's still the common view in a hundred years or so, it will carry more weight.

> The current obsession that companies exist solely for making money for shareholders

Making money for shareholders is an instrument to secure long term/regular investment. It's not the "end goal", and almost no company's mission is "to make money". Money is just the blood stream that enables everything else.


> It's not the "end goal", and almost no company's mission is "to make money".

Sure seems that way, when every decision is optimized towards making money short-term. I think the more correct model of most companies would be money-focused entities that through path dependence ended up in the market sector they're in. That is, the actual thing they're doing is an artifact of history and is abstracted away for actual operations.


Yet there is a common belief that companies are legally obliged to make enriching shareholders their only priority.
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