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A couple of months ago, I ran across the paper “The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work”, by Phillip Rogaway. It’s a very good paper; I encourage you all to read it, instead of this blog post! But, for those of you who are still here: the question there of the political implications of nominally apolitical subjects (the pure math underlying cryptography, in that case) reminded me of problems that I’ve struggled with a few times over the years.

For example, I don’t want to have anything personally to do with the military. I’ll accept that a country the size of the US needs a military and I have respect for (most) people who serve in it; but my belief is that, over the last half-century or more, the US military has been the aggressor far more often than the defender, that’s it’s done much more harm than good.

I write that I don’t want to have anything personally to do with the military, but the truth is that I’ve accepted military money, and more than once. In the summer after my freshman year of college, I worked at a military contractor; I don’t remember enough details about the funding of the project that I worked on to be sure, but I assume that my paycheck came straight out of the DoD. I justified it in that the project was, on the surface, in no way militarily-focused, it was applicable much more broadly: we were working on a system for automatic verification of computer programs.

And, for grad school, I got a scholarship from the military; they gave me a slightly higher stipend than the NSF would have, and they didn’t impose any requirement for me to work with them, so I figured, it wouldn’t change my actions in any way, why not take their money?

Later on, I applied for a job with a company that worked on free software; in particular, they worked on GCC (the GNU C compiler), and one of their clients (if I’m remembering correctly) was the Lawrence Livermore lab, who wanted improvements to GCC to help numerical simulations used in their nuclear weapons work. The idea of helping nuclear weapons work squicked me out enough that I withdrew from consideration for the job (and I have no reason to believe they would have hired me). Of course, it helped that some of my other job leads seemed to be turning out well, I’m not at all confident if I’d have made the same decision if my job search had been running dry.


I’m not saying that, even for a pacifist (which I don’t necessarily consider myself to be), any of those three examples would be situations where military collaboration would be immoral. In all of the situations, the work was in no way of a strongly military nature: I’d have ended up doing the same sort of pure math Ph.D. no matter my funding source, and making an open-source compiler even better is a positive good in the world! So they’re different from the cryptographic examples in the article I mentioned: they’re different from doing cryptographic research within the confines of the NSA that will never see the light of day, but also, setting the NSA aside, effective cryptographic results are either going to help you keep secrets or help you uncover secrets, and in neither case is it morally neutral. If you’re working in a field like cryptography, I would certainly recommend thinking hard about what you want to do that work in service of.

But that lack of direct military impact is exactly what I want to talk about. We’ve evolved into a society that is very good at giving powerful institutions what they want: institutions find what level of collaboration a given person is comfortable with and convince that person to do exactly that much collaboration. Continuing with the military example: if you want to kill for your country, they’ll hire you to do that. If you would rather not kill but are okay directly supporting those who do, they’ll hire you to work behind the lines. If you don’t want to work in the military itself but you still support the institution or are neutral to it, then there’s a job for you as a military contractor. If that sort of active support makes you feel uncomfortable, the military will still pay for and benefit from work on technologies that are useful to but not specific to the military.

Ultimately, this collaboration diffuses down to the level of working for a company that manufactures nails that are sold on the open market with the military as one of its buyers, or to paying taxes with some of that tax money going to the military. Renouncing collaboration at that level means giving up both a huge number of personal benefits and societal benefits to other institutions; it’s a rare person indeed who would avoid that sort of collaboration, whether because of a desire to avoid the personally unpleasant consequences or because of an active desire to affirm the broader virtues of a society where nails are available on the open market and where taxes support programs that make our society as a whole stronger. But, even accepting (as I certainly do) those last points, it remains: powerful institutions are capable of putting their fingers on the scales to tilt society in their direction at many levels.


I work in Silicon Valley: sometimes for tech startups, sometimes for larger companies that have acquired those startups. And I do believe that Silicon Valley brings a lot of benefits to the world; but, following the above reasoning: there’s also a vast amount of money sloshing around, and it is inconceivable that that money isn’t being used to tilt the scales in directions that benefits those who control the money. There’s a level of indirection beyond the “direct military funding” example, though, so it’s a little less obvious what ends I’m working in service of.

I mean, with some companies in the valley (and none of these examples are ones I’ve worked at), the moral linkages are obvious: Palantir, for example, is creepy as fuck, they’re not even trying to hide that, just look at their name! Uber is a little more subtle: they’re consciously placing themselves in the middle of a bunch of really important societal shifts, shifts that are large enough that I don’t feel like I can clearly see which ones will end up with us in a better world and which in a worse world, especially in a medium-to-long timescale; if Uber weren’t so obvious about not caring about democracy or workers, I might wonder about whether I’d be interested in working for them, but, well, they are pretty obvious about both of those points. Facebook is a step further into uncertainty: connecting people is good, getting information that’s interesting to you is good, except that a filter bubble is bad, and monopoly power over certain classes of interaction and information access is bad.

And then, taking one step further away: setting aside the question of what companies do, there’s the question of whose pockets you’re putting money into by helping those companies become valuable. I certainly wouldn’t want to work at a company where somebody who thinks women’s sufferage is harmful is in a position of leadership (which rules out two of the companies in the previous paragraph); I don’t know exactly where I draw the line with him, but I’m very glad that the company I work for doesn’t have Founders Fund as an invester, and I hope it stays that way. He’s not the only prominent Silicon Valley VC whom I find abhorrent, though; it may be that finding a valley company that’s funded by ethical VC firms isn’t any more possible than buying your gas from an ethical oil company. Or maybe that sort of nihilism is exactly wrong, in that it encourages us to give up rather than trying to make ethical choices!


Looking a little more broadly than Silicon Valley: as I write this, we’re getting an object lesson in how many people in the country support white supremacy, support Christian supremacy, support patriarchal supremacy. Those are powerful institutions, putting their fingers on the scales of society in countless ways.

And I qualify on two of those three categories; I’m sure that has given me huge benefits over my lifetime, much more than I’m consciously aware of. I’m also sure that I’ve both implicitly and, at times, explicitly supported the wrong side of those positions; I’ve also explicitly worked against them at times, don’t get me wrong, but still.

With something as deeply woven into the fabric of our society as, say, patriarchy, it’s impossible to not be compromised in countless ways, even if you want to do the right thing. I think that men and women should be compensated equally, and I also recognize that they aren’t. That doesn’t mean that I volunteer to give up part of my paycheck, it doesn’t even necessarily mean that I should volunteer to give up part of my paycheck, but it does mean that I shouldn’t pretend to be confident that I’m “earning” everything I get: if I were a different but equally capable person, the chances are that I wouldn’t be getting the same compensation. The chances are, in fact, that I wouldn’t be doing what I do at all: looking around at my last several jobs, it’s abundantly clear that society is pushing men and women in different directions. I would like to pretend that I’ve gotten where I am out of merit, and I do actually believe that I’m a good programmer, but still: clearly I am and have been for decades competing on a playing field that benefits me. And it’s not clear to me either what the ethical responses are to this situation or whether I personally am willing to accept the consequences of those ethical responses.


So: powerful forces have their effects everywhere, at all levels. They figure out where each of us individually have our limits and then push us in their favor towards those limits. And just being aware of the extent of this is very difficult, let alone navigating it at all successfully.

Fortunately, as the protests over the last month have shown: there are powerful forces working in favor of the many, not just in favor of the few…

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