- Owning Ethics:Corporate Logics, Silicon Valley, and the Institutionalization of Ethics
Ethics is arguably the hottest product in Silicon Valley's1 hype cycle today, even as headlines decrying a lack of ethics in technology companies accumulate. After years of largely fruitless outside pressure to consider the consequences of digital technology products, the very recent past has seen a spike in the assignment of corporate resources in Silicon Valley to ethics, including hiring staff for roles we identify here as "ethics owners." In corporate parlance, "owning" a portfolio or project means holding responsibility for it, often across multiple divisions or hierarchies within the organization. Typically, the "owner" of a project does not bear sole responsibility for it, but rather oversees integration of that project across the organization.
A remarkable range of internal and external challenges and responses tends to fall under a single analytic framework called "ethics." This strains an already broad term that in some contexts means an open-ended philosophical investigation into moral conditions of human experience and, in other contexts, means the bureaucratized expectations of professional behavior. Likewise, it places strain on [End Page 449] corporate structures because it is bureaucratically challenging to disambiguate whether these problems belong in the domain of legal review, human resources, engineering practices, and/or business models and strategy.
One of our informants for the project described in this essay illustrates what it looks like to "own ethics" in the tech industry today. She works for a global enterprise-software provider—a company that serves software platforms to other companies—headquartered in Silicon Valley, and her job title refers to ethics. Charismatic and gregarious, she is comfortable talking to engineering staff, corporate heads, and external industry critics, and is known to give hugs to new and old acquaintances, as is common in Northern California. While always friendly, she is often blunt with her judgment, and despite decades of engineering and management work, she is fluent in the discourses of justice, equity, and fairness. She ably uses those discourses to explain to corporate leaders and the public where her industry has gone wrong. On any given day, one might find her giving a TED-style talk about ethical design practices at an industry conference, running a closed-door workshop for fellow ethics owners and haranguing attendees to write ideas on sticky notes for the whiteboard, writing an academic conference paper about tech ethics, or conducting internal product oversight. Internally, she is known as a prolific evangelist for ethics in company communications channels. She often presents her central goal as creating an ethics race to the top across the tech industry, demonstrating her conviction that tech can do better to fulfill foundational ethics commitments.
All this activity happens against a backdrop of the usual Silicon Valley cultural oddities that contrast with the seriousness of the task: offices with swing sets and beer kegs, conferences run by vaporware venture capitalists, and engineers who attempt to troll our informant on Twitter. In our interview, she repeatedly gestured to her role as someone who translates external norms and pressures into practices that are internally tractable—for example, rendering the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a practical guideline [End Page 450] for screening out problematic enterprise clientele, or finding ways to align revenue-generating metrics ("clicks") with an ethically robust model of value for platform users. Upon reflection, it is remarkable that a profit-seeking enterprise would employ someone in this role who spends a fair amount of her salaried time criticizing the industry's normative failings.
This informant is one amongst the growing cadre of people tasked with owning ethics who lead us to question whether and how ethics, as an organizational responsibility, can challenge the core logics of the industry that repeatedly animate its ethical crises. Through ethics owners, the ancient, domain-jumping, and irresolvable debates about human values that underlie ethical inquiry are implemented as institutional practices aimed at technology development. While a robust effort to foreground the importance of human values is both welcome and needed, a closer examination of how ethics is becoming institutionalized as a set of roles...