Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Ethics and Geek Culture

Only two pieces today, but excellent in each case

Executives learn ethics the hard way: From Marines by Jim Michaels
The mission was simple. The team was to meet with a local village priest and establish a relationship.
The plan quickly fell apart when the group realized the solemn ceremony they had been invited to was a forced "wedding" in which a bride whose hands were bound by rope was carried screaming into a tent.
Now they were faced with a choice. Protect the woman from possible harm and alienate an important ally or allow the wedding to take place and avoid interfering in a culture they barely understood.
"I was torn," said Elton Mile, a 28-year-old financial adviser with Morgan Stanley, who led the team.
Mile was part of a group of executives who came to the Marine Corps base here as part of a three-day course to learn ethical leadership from combat leaders. In the wake of the Enron debacle, the collapse of Lehman Bros., Bernard Madoff and other moral lapses, business schools are re-examining ethics training. Traditionally, business schools have taught the skills needed to maximize profits, and given short shrift to softer subjects, such as ethics.
The stakes are rarely as high in the business world as they are in war, where lives are at risk. But that's why the military is uniquely qualified to teach ethics, executives and officers say. It is harder to maintain normal values amid the death and chaos of war.
"What combat does to you is it … corrodes that moral sense that you have about the world," said Marine Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers, commander of The Basic School at Quantico, which is where newly minted second lieutenants are trained before entering speciality schools.
Officers are responsible for setting an ethical tone that will allow Marines to keep their ethical balance amid the chaos of war. "You have to be able to return your Marines back to the United States complete, whole — their characters, their integrity, their moral fiber," said Desgrosseilliers, who earned a silver star in Fallujah, Iraq.
This is not Harvard Business School. The military is used to creating realistic training to prepare men and women for war. The training is designed to be so authentic that it triggers real emotions and fear. There are no right answers.
Morality isn't something which is often taught, at least not explicitly, although plenty of us have exposure to it through our friends, family and so forth. Explicit learning however serves to teach us that as with everything else, strong ethical decision making is something which takes practice if it is to be done well.

Geeks are the New Guardians of Our Civil Liberties by (the inimitable) Gabriella Coleman
Take, for instance, the reaction to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a far-reaching copyright bill meant to curtail piracy online. SOPA was unraveled before being codified into law due to a massive and elaborate outpouring of dissent driven by the hacker movement.

The linchpin was a “Blackout Day”—a Web-based protest of unprecedented scale. To voice their opposition to the bill, on January 17, 2012, nonprofits, some big Web companies, public interest groups, and thousands of individuals momentarily removed their websites from the Internet and thousands of other citizens called or e-mailed their representatives. Journalists eventually wrote a torrent of articles. Less than a week later, in response to these stunning events, SOPA and PIPA, its counterpart in the Senate, were tabled (see “SOPA Battle Won, but War Continues”).

The victory hinged on its broad base of support cultivated by hackers and geeks. The participation of corporate giants like Google, respected Internet personalities like Jimmy Wales, and the civil liberties organization EFF was crucial to its success. But the geek and hacker contingent was palpably present, and included, of course, Anonymous. Since 2008, activists have rallied under this banner to initiate targeted demonstrations, publicize various wrongdoings, leak sensitive data, engage in digital direct action, and provide technology assistance for revolutionary movements.
One key ingredient to the success of Anonymous lies in its participatory nature, especially when compared to spheres of hacker action where technical skill is a prerequisite for participation (and often respect). Skilled hackers are indeed vital to Anonymous’s networks—they set up communication infrastructure and grab most of the headlines—for instance, when they hack into servers to search for information on government or corporate corruption. Hacking, however, still remains one tool of many (and some Anonymous subgroups oppose hacking and defacing). There is other work to be done: stirring press releases to write, propaganda posters to design, and videos to edit. Geeks and hackers may have different skills sets, but they are often traveling companions online, ingesting similar news, following similar geeky cultural currents, and defending Internet freedom, although using distinct methods and styles of organizing.

The depth, extent, and especially diversity of this geek political movement was made evident to me just recently, not at an official political event but at a memorial service that doubled as an informal political rally. Over a thousand people gathered in New York City’s regal Cooper Union Hall to honor Aaron Swartz, a hacker and self-proclaimed activist who had recently taken his own life, some say due to government overreach in his federal case concerning the legality of downloading millions of academic articles from MIT’s library website (see “Why Aaron Swartz’s Ideas Matter”).

They spoke about Aaron’s life, quirky personality, and especially his political accomplishments and aspirations. Like his peers, he abhorred censorship, and thus naturally joined the fight against SOPA; the service featured snippets of his famous keynote address at the Freedom to Connect conference from May 2012, when Swartz said, “It was really stopped by the people themselves.” He had been instrumental in fundamental ways, for he had founded an organization, Demand Progress, a nonprofit that had effectively harnessed this citizen discontent over SOPA through petitions and other campaigns.
I enjoyed this piece but I think it misses the point that what she calls geeks are really the emerging norm of politically (and socially) active people. The most recent generation to enter politics was born when the internet was slow and clunky and have grown with it, as a vibrant core of their social experience. It is unsurprising therefore that it has become a strong part of their political identity. Geeks (and indeed - normals) are unwilling to accept claims that they live in representative democracies if the fundamental freedom of "their" internet is being put on the chopping block.

The internet is serving to shape politics and that trend will only grow stronger in time. It will becoming increasingly unacceptable to undermine the free internet, which will of course make attempts to limit the free internet all the more aggressive. The key issue currently is that while geeks may be defending civil liberties too few are entering public office. The growing power of the Pirate Party is hopefully a sign of things to come.

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