Perspectives from interdisciplinary students: Exploring the ethical considerations of work at the intersection of tech and society
As students studying tech policy at Stanford University, we hosted Pursuing Careers in Ethical Tech: An Interdisciplinary Student’s Dilemma — a MozFest session focused on how students are thinking through pursuing ethical careers at the intersection of technology and society. The initial inspiration for our session was the January 2020 issue of a Mozilla zine, focused on tech worker organizing and navigating ethical issues in the industry. Much has happened in the ethical tech space since the zine was initially published. Recent events have thrust discussions of ethics to the forefront of tech industry coverage. Students, at both the graduate and undergraduate level – and policy students in particular – are affected by these discussions and feel a significant amount of anxiety about choosing an ethical career path.
We began our session by focusing on what we actually mean when we use the term “ethics.” Ethics has become a hype term, especially in Silicon Valley, which has devoted more corporate resources to ethics in recent years. The top five largest internet companies in the US (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft) all have a “code of ethics.” Some have even built organizations and teams within the company focused on responsible and ethical tech development. Yet these same organizations have been harshly criticized for prioritizing the company’s bottom line over pursuing ethical practices.
Broadly speaking, we think of “ethics” as normative claims about how the world should be: What is 'right,' what is 'just,' and what is 'fair.' “Ethics,” however, means different things to different people and it lacks conceptual and institutional unity. As danah boyd, Jacob Metcalf, and Emanuel Moss note, there are several pitfalls associated with invoking such an ambiguous term, particularly when attempting to institutionalize ethics within the tech industry.
A core problem is that ethical issues are 'navigated' and 'negotiated,' but they are never solved.
A main challenge in determining the meaning and practices of ethics is who gets to make decisions around how to “translate ethical principles into the practical necessities of business.” Oftentimes, commitment to ethics is in tension with how these companies operate their businesses. Ultimately, invoking “ethics” can easily serve as an empty gesture.
Before moving on to discussing how students navigate careers in such a complex area, we asked participants in the MozFest session to reflect on the following high-level questions throughout the session: How do we learn ethics? How do we institutionalize ethics? What are metrics of ethics? How do we meaningfully integrate ethics into tech-related work?
In preparation for our MozFest session, we asked Stanford University students who study and work at the intersection of ethics and technology a series of questions over email to understand their motivations, needs, and challenges. Specifically, we asked students:
- How do their courses incorporate ethics, culture, history, and power into tech-related discussions?
- How does their academic program support them in interdisciplinary studies?
- Do they feel adequate funding is available for research around ethics and tech?
- Do they know how to find jobs & internships at this intersection?
- Do non-tech students know of opportunities within the tech industry, and do tech students know of opportunities outside the tech industry?
After compiling students’ responses, notable patterns emerged in their answers.
First, we identified a resounding call for required ethics courses in tech-related curriculum. Some students noted that their degree programs did not require any ethics component, so they decided to seek out ethics-related opportunities for themselves. Other students noted that because tech curricula often ignore larger systemic inequities and sociohistorical issues that surround "tech ethics" issues, they would like to see courses that focus on the history, power, and culture of technology and technologists. From the sample of Stanford students we surveyed, it was clear to us that there is a huge deficit of meaningful ethics education in tech curricula, that students are interested in these courses, and this is something that computer science and engineering programs should make significant progress on in the future. As noted by Casey Fiesler, there are a significant number of tech ethics courses out there, but their quality and utility to students is highly variable. The Mozilla Foundation’s Responsible CS initiative is part of a movement to address this problem and ensure that tech ethics education is done well.
In addition, we found that students typically see interdisciplinary work as exciting and deeply fulfilling, but well-executed interdisciplinary opportunities are rare. Specifically, courses or research opportunities advertised as ‘interdisciplinary,’ are often disjointed from each other and not well-integrated, failing to truly blend diverse academic perspectives. Students noted that they did not find many ways to think about ethics in interdisciplinary ways in their major. Academic programs – including major departments, minor programs, and other curricular initiatives – should explore ways to provide substantial interdisciplinary opportunities to students that truly weave different disciplinary practices together.
Further, we found that while funding opportunities for students interested in this interdisciplinary work are burgeoning, they are often limited and not well-known. For example, one student at Stanford noted that funding definitely exists, but often only at niche intersections. For many projects to be funded, they must fall within strict boundaries and constraints laid out by the grant program, potentially limiting students from pursuing different modalities, formats, and research topics. The student noted that from their perspective, if a student wanted to pursue something outside of funders' constraints, a great deal of luck and effort is required. Other students noted that the space as a whole needs to do a better job at ensuring that people with different identities and experiences can also participate in funded research opportunities.
It’s not necessarily easy for students to explore new and innovative topics and research formats through current funding opportunities, particularly students who come from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds.
This must be addressed in order to encourage innovation and intellectual progress in the tech ethics space that is inclusive of and welcoming to those from diverse backgrounds.
Finally, we observed that internship and job opportunities in tech ethics are very limited, even more so for those coming from non-technical backgrounds. While there are growing opportunities for those interested in civic tech, govtech, and other technologist roles, there is still a distinct lack of opportunities for non-STEM students to work on tech ethics issues. Students noted that there is more awareness of ways to build tech for good purposes, but less awareness at the intersections of tech, policy, and ethics, and mitigating potential harms caused by tech. Employers in the space should create roles for and hire graduates from non-STEM backgrounds on their teams that traditionally feature only technical roles, since an interdisciplinary and humanistic perspective is critical to building ethical technology. These kinds of non-STEM roles may be filled by social scientists, ethics officers, anthropologists, sociologists, among others roles.
In addition to students, we spoke with academics and practitioners from government, academia, the private industry, and civil society who work at the intersection of ethics and technology and who we know through current and past work. We asked them:
- How did you weigh your options in pursuing a career in the tech industry, civil society, academia, or government service?
- What do you do when your personal ethics collide with your work’s practices?
- How did you develop a moral code or set of ethics that is transferable between jobs and sectors?
- What advice do you have for students interested in the intersection of tech and ethics?
Based on practitioner and academic responses, we noted a handful of broad themes in their advice to students. It is important to note that, as with any advice, not every piece will apply to all people or situations. Each student must weigh their own personal responsibilities and obligations with the options available to them. However, despite our differing backgrounds, responsibilities, and goals, each of us found comfort and wisdom in the advice given related to our own job hunts, anxieties, and hopes.
A helpful message we heard repeatedly was that a first job doesn’t determine an entire career. The reality is that US workers ages 25-34 stay at a job a median of 2.8 years. Students should not worry that taking an available job, even if it is not their dream opportunity or what they pictured for themselves, will limit the remainder of their career. Relatedly, our interviewees also assured us that early career choices won’t create future path dependency problems, leaving students pigeonholed into choices they made in their 20s and encouraged students to view their careers on a longer time horizon. Such a perspective allows students to envision nonlinear careers. This simple advice from mentors can go a long way in comforting students, who sometimes can feel as if a single job choice will be the only factor influencing all future career prospects for the next 40 years.
Lastly, we were told repeatedly that no matter how much students study and prepare, it is very common across all sectors to feel lost in the early months of a new job. Knowing how to think, write, and communicate will help in the initial stages of any job but students should not feel overwhelmed if they find themselves somewhat underprepared and unqualified for the job early on.
The interviewees also provided advice on choosing a career and future employers. Often, people have to make career decisions while considering their family situation, financial debt, or any other obligations, and recognizing this fact of life may help students find a path that matches well with their responsibilities. In addition, these responsibilities and obligations change throughout life and being able to reassess priorities and realign career goals to fit those priorities is vital. In finding employers, one interviewee encouraged students to look for mentorship and support that align with those priorities, as those factors can help employees grow and thrive.
When we asked about morals, values, and ethics, our interviewees encouraged personal reflection. Introspection and slowing down to know yourself better allows you to define your own values and identify how you want to have an impact. Life will repeatedly provide challenges where taking a stand may be necessary. Having these personal values to fall back upon will help you know where your red line is. Similarly, by taking the time to develop your own theory of change, or what methods you believe are most effective to have the impact or outcome you’re aiming for, you will know when to push boundaries and when to step back in order to achieve your goals and stay in line with your own morals. The challenge in this for many students is prioritizing the downtime needed to reflect on these larger questions when adding another resume line may seem more valuable in the short term. Classes that focus on or incorporate ethics can help with many of these questions but cannot simply replace taking the time to discover, question, and refine your own morals and values.
During the MozFest session, students raised concerns about opportunities to study at the intersection of tech and ethics, as well as challenges with finding opportunities to work across disciplines. Funding for such opportunities can be particularly hard to find, especially for students outside of the United States, Europe, and other well-resourced countries, and for students at less well-funded institutions. Yet, as one student noted, tech development requires interdisciplinarity, as product development involves policy, engineering, and legal considerations, among others. Many students in attendance felt that their ethics courses were superficial and that ethics issues were not integrated into the design of their projects. Students brought up that they were never asked to consider the ethical impacts of their research and what they were building in school. As one student noted, students were rarely asked to reflect on the postcolonial nature of software, the fact that many tech companies were founded in the United States, and how that fits in with their own morals, ethics, and priorities.
Students suggested that their career choice was often a binary one: pursuing an ethical path versus a technical one.
Within companies, ethics is quarantined to a specific part of the company, rather than being integrated holistically.
Students interested in pursuing ethical careers within the industry feared being put in a position to fail. Students also raised concerns that women, in particular, might feel pressure to pursue an ethical path rather than a technical one.
Finally, students noted that their curriculums did not afford them opportunities to reflect on their own personal ethics and perceived that their universities disapproved of opportunities that took them away from the “rat race.” Students feared that taking time off for self-reflection would be perceived as laziness and lead to gaps in their resumes.
The feedback and discussion during the session informed us further about the needs of students around the world interested in the intersection of technology and society. Higher education and employers would benefit from listening to their students on these issues and being willing to try new approaches that would help students.
- Recognize that students stepping away from the classroom has value in and of itself. Allow and encourage students to carve out space for themselves to reflect on their personal ethics and ideals.
- Provide meaningful interdisciplinary opportunities through classes, research opportunities, funding, internships, and jobs.
- Require ethics courses and expand current offerings, ensuring that the history, power, and culture of tech is confronted. These curriculums should be iterated upon after student feedback to ensure the themes and topics are taught well and not just as placeholders.
- Connect with other educators and check out the Responsible CS Challenge Playbook.
- Don’t quarantine discussions of ethics to specific individuals or teams. Build discussions of ethics into every team.
- Support employees who want to explore ethical issues, such as through funding for further education or time for meaningful interdisciplinary education.
- Expand internship and full-time roles for those of non-STEM degrees, recognizing the value added by those with diverse academic backgrounds and focuses.
- Take the time to slow down and assess your own morals, values, and ethics. This will help you throughout your career in life in deciding when to push forward or stay back to achieve your goals.
- While stress in a job hunt is inevitable, remember to separate finding a first job, a success in itself, from the long, winding path of a career. Your first job will not be the sole deciding factor of success for the rest of your life and keeping expectations and the long-run in mind can help alleviate some anxieties.
- Every person has responsibilities and obligations that impact what job they are able to find, receive, and take. Regularly reassessing these responsibilities and obligations will help students find jobs that align with their priorities and employers who support them.