The strongly technical focus of computer science as a discipline means that the underlying values behind the development and use of technology often become obscured. Hidden biases inherent in systems, based on AI and algorithmic processes, making important decisions affecting people's lives [16] illustrate the need to more openly reveal these values. Debates such as the recent spat between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, around AI and the need to regulate software systems which critically influence the lives of many [18], will only intensify, and our students will need to be better prepared to address the issues involved.

A critical question then is, can we reveal what values are driving our technology and the businesses based upon it? Disruptive new business models created by tech ventures and aggressive Silicon Valley start-ups are driving the so called 'gig economy' [23] and new forms of 'platform capitalism.' [14] But the tensions are now becoming more obvious. This column takes the case of Uber as an example, highlighting the dubious choices in which the software developers for the company have been implicated. It asks, to what extent should we expect our graduates to have an innate concern for the human, moral, and legal aspects of their actions? Yet exercising such professional judgement is not easy. A myopic view of the system code may predominate, the company culture can be oppressive or even toxic and sometimes the cumulative effects of systems can be hard to discern.

A panel session at the Global Software Engineering conference in May 2017 [5], discussed the topics of Systems-of-Systems, Software Ecosystems and Distributed Software Development. In an interesting aspect of the debate, Jon Whittle noted the unpredictable outcomes emerging from such groups of systems. He argued the need to consider the values embedded within each component system, to highlight core incompatibilities between systems and address the implications. Computer science often masquerades under the cloak of technology as value neutral, so this struck me as an important insight that we need to be aware of ourselves, and to share with our students. Jon referred to an intriguing model of 'universal values' [19] as a way in which to think about what values drive our systems. This model by Schwartz identified several value groupings which can be used to categorize a value system whether held by a human or (as Jon argues [7]) embedded within a hardware/software system.


[Uber] represents a case of 'platform capitalism' ... where the enabling technology provides a base for an aggressive tech start-up employing a new business model, muscling into markets, disrupting other businesses, and with the ability to rapidly scale—a venture capitalist's dream!


As a company Uber provides a good example of a technology driven start-up business, albeit now undergoing some growing pains. It represents a case of 'platform capitalism' [11,14] where the enabling technology provides a base for an aggressive tech start-up employing a new business model, muscling into markets, disrupting other businesses, and with the ability to rapidly scale—a venture capitalist's dream! Yet, I have been particularly struck by the case of this company which has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons, leading up to the release of the CEO Travis Kalanick from the firm, (but not the board since he was a major stockholder of this $70B company!) [24]. Several compounding factors led to Travis' departure. In early 2017 the company reputation had suffered from the explosive revelations of the sexist treatment of female employees at the company in the blog post by former employee Susan Fowler [8], and also from the #DeleteUber backlash against the company's perceived support of President Trump's 'Muslim ban' [20], resulting in a reported 200,000 accounts being deleted. The pressured Uber board subsequently commissioned and released the results of "an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and a toxic work environment" [9], as a response to the apparent condoning of practices unbefitting a major listed company. A Company Board meeting held in response to the damning report, discussed strategies to develop a more diverse workforce. Ironically, while Board member Ariana Huffington reportedly "said that data showed that once a company had one woman on its board, it was more likely to have a second... [venture capitalist David] Bonderman interjected: "Actually, what it shows is that it's much more likely to be more talking." [24] In acknowledging the inappropriateness of his own sexist behavior, and the level of the company to which such attitudes had penetrated, Bonderman then had the sense to resign from the board. Resulting action has included the sacking of 20 employees for sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination [4]. Is this cultural distortion then a uniquely business phenomenon, a Silicon Valley anomaly, or a result of deficient diversity in the education that young computer scientists and engineers often receive?

Then at a technical level, how might a 'toxic work environment' [12] and accompanying value system manifest itself? What work might a developer in such a company be assigned to carry out? One example can be seen in the "Grey-ball" system [10,17] "that analyzed credit card, device identification, location data and other factors to predict whether a request for a ride was legitimate." [17] While ostensibly aimed at preventing fraud and protecting drivers from harm, it was also used to screen for local officials in jurisdictions where Uber was operating without approval, who might "fine drivers, impound cars or otherwise prevent Uber from operating...For example, it mined credit card information to see if the owner was affiliated with a credit union used by police and checked social media profiles to assess the likelihood that the person was in law enforcement." [17]

So, did the employees asked to write software to evade the authorities have any qualms about their actions? Or had they adopted the company's values in deliberately flouting the law as part of their 'disruptive' business model? Were they members of the ACM, and if so would the code of ethics have had any impact on their behavior? For instance, section 2.3 of the code states that: "ACM members must obey existing local, state, province, national, and international laws unless there is a compelling ethical basis not to do so" [1], and section 1.7 requires members to "Respect the privacy of others." [1] Did concern for the welfare of Uber drivers operating illegally then, constitute such "a compelling ethical basis," and was such a blatant breach of the privacy of law enforcement officers justifiable?

An interesting insight into the core competencies expected of Uber employees was provided by Shontell [21] who noted the following set of values: "Vision, Quality Obsession, Innovation, Fierceness, Execution, Scale Communication, Super Pumpedness." Disturbingly, how could a young programmer caught up in the bizarrely cult-like atmosphere of such a company, safely say no to writing unethical code?

To chart these characteristics of the company, I have mapped my own perception of their values, based on the background research for this article, to the model proposed by Schwartz (Figure 1). Uber's core value groupings are highlighted and their boundaries delineated by a red dotted line.

Could we use this model with our students then to discuss the values of the organizations they may end up working for? Might it help to confront the dilemmas they could be faced within the tasks they may be assigned, and the sorts of organizations they may not wish to work for? We could pose scenarios such as the above and have students map the driving values behind them. Similarly, we could note the implications of such behaviors through the health costs of the Volkswagen fraud, where software was written to conceal emissions test failures, with an estimated "value of life lost of at least 39 billion US dollars." [13] We could also discuss the challenges for employees of 'whistle blowing,' as recommended in section 1.3 of the ACM code.

The overwhelmingly individualistic, power, status, and money orientation in the values portrayed in Figure 1 are striking. Perhaps this value set explains the contrasting view in the reaction of Transport for London, which has refused to renew Uber's license to operate, declaring "that Uber was not sufficiently 'fit and proper'" [22], a test which assesses a company's honesty, transparency, and competence. That decision will impact some 40,000 drivers and 3.5 million customers per month [22]. The Uber value system also explains some German Taxi driver's rejection of an invitation to join Uber.com as registered drivers, given the tight German regulation of the taxi system, the valuing of "consumer protection, safety and training" [23] in the industry, and banning of Uber with its model of self-employed independent free-lancers [23].

Such globalized models of wealth generation are lampooned in Figure 2. But that hands-off, exploitative model underlying much of the 'platform economy' is increasingly under challenge in the courts [2,6,15,22]. Termed "apploitation" [3] by Callaway, he depicts a brutal technological straightjacket enforced by systems that marginalize their workers. Do such systems written by myopic hordes of narrow 'coders,' really constitute a 'great leap forward for mankind'? We need to wake up to the serious downside posed by these 'shiny new advances' in platform technologies. Maybe more durable systems will result from making our students aware of a less fashionable value system: one that manages to incorporate a more balanced focus on security, conformity, tradition, benevolence, and universalism.

References

1. ACM Code of ethics; https://www.acm.org/about-acm/acm-code-of-ethics-and-professional-conduct - section 2.3. Accessed 2017 August 1.

2. Aloisi, A. Commoditized workers: Case study research on labor law issues arising from a set of on-demand/gig economy platforms. Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, 37 (2015), 653–690.

3. Callaway, A. Apploitation in a city of instaserfs: How the "sharing economy" has turned San Francisco into a dystopia for the working class. The Monitor; https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/monitor-januaryfebruary-2016. Accessed 2017 July 26.

4. Coogan C. Uber fires 20 staff following sexual harassment investigation. The Telegraph, June 7, 2017; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2017/06/07/uber-fires-20-staff-following-sexual-harrasment-investigation/. Accessed 2017 July 27.

5. Damian D. et al., SESoS/WDES & ICGSE 2017 Joint Panel. in 2017 IEEE 12th International Conference on Global Software Engineering (ICGSE), Buenos Aires, Argentina, IEEE, 2017, xv-xv. doi: 10.1109/ICGSE.2017.29

6. Drahokoupil, J. and Jepsen, M. The digita economy and its implications for labour. 1. The platform economy. ETUI, 23, 2 (2017), 103–119. DOI: 10.1177/1024258917701380.

7. Ferrario, M. Simm, W. Whittle, J. Frauenberger, C. Fitzpatrick, G. and Purgathofer, P. Values in Computing [Workshop]. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Denver, Colorado, USA: ACM, 2017), 660–667.

8. Fowler S. Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber. (blog) Feb 19, 2017; https://www.susanjfowler.com/blog/2017/2/19/reflecting-on-one-very-strange-year-at-uber. Accessed 2017 June 8.

9. Holder J. Holder recommendations on Uber. The New York Times, June 13, 2017; https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/13/technology/document-The-Holder-Report-on-Uber.html. Accessed 2017 July 27.

10. Isaac M. Inside Uber's Aggressive, Unrestrained Workplace Culture. The New York Times, February 22, 2017; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/22/technology/uber-workplace-culture.html. Accessed 2017 July 27.

11. Langley, P. and Leyshon, A. Platform capitalism: the intermediation and capitalisation of digital economic circulation. Finance and Society 2, 1 (2016), in press.

12. Law J. Report exposes toxic culture as Travis Kalanick steps down. News.com.au, June 13, 2017; http://www.news.com.au/finance/business/travel/report-exposes-ubers-toxic-culture-as-ceo-steps-down/news-story/1374e61302946f08ff9d1bb9c201a828. Accessed 2017 July 27.

13. Oldenkamp, R., van Zelm, R. and Huijbregts, M. Valuing the human health damage caused by the fraud of Volkswagen. Environmental Pollution, 212 (2016), 121–127.

14. Pasquale, F. Two Narratives of Platform Capitalism. Yale Law & Policy Review, 35 (2016), 309–319.

15. Prassl, J. and Risak, M. Uber, Taskrabbit, and Co.: Platforms as Employers-Rethinking the Legal Analysis of Crowdwork. Comp. Labor Law & Policy Journal, 37 (2015), 619.

16. Raymond, A. Young, E. and Shackelford, S. Building a Better HAL 9000: Algorithms, the Market, and the Need to Prevent the Engraining of Bias. Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property, (2017); Kelley School of Business Research Paper No. 17–23; https://ssrn.com/abstract=2921442. Accessed 2017 August 7.

17. Reuters. Uber faces criminal investigation after evading the law with 'Greyball' tool. The Guardian, May 5, 2017; https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/04/uber-criminal-investigation-greyball. Accessed 2017 August 1.

18. Russell, J. Elon Musk says Mark Zuckerberg's understanding of the future of AI is 'limited.' TechChrunch, Jul 25, 2017; https://techcrunch.com/2017/07/25/elon-musk-mark-zuckerberg-artificial-intelligence/. Accessed 2017 September 18.

19. Schwartz, S. H. Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. Advances in experimental social psychology, 25 (1992), 1–65.

20. Shen L. Donald Trump Muslim Ban: 200,000 Uber Users Have Deleted the App. Fortune, Feb 3, 2017; http://fortune.com/2017/02/03/uber-lyft-delete-donald-trump-executive-order/. Accessed 2017 September 23.

21. Shontell A. A Leaked Internal Uber Presentation Shows What the Company Really Values in its Employees. Business Insider Australia. https://www.businessinsider.com.au/uber-employee-competencies-fierceness-and-super-pumpedness-2014-11?r=US&IR=T. Accessed 2017 August 6.

22. Rao P. and Isaac M. Uber Loses License to Operate in London. The New York Times, September 22, 2017; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/22/business/uber-london.html. Accessed 2017 September 25.

23. Vitaud L. Switch Collective (Blog) Nov 20, 2015; https://medium.com/switch-collective/freelancers-in-germany-why-global-gig-economy-platforms-find-it-so-hard-to-succeed-134ccdff651. Accessed 2017 August 9.

24. Wong J. Board member resigns after sexist remark at meeting regarding sexism. The Guardian, June 14, 2017; https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/13/david-bonderman-resigns-uber-board-sexist-remark. Accessed 2017 July 27.

Author

Tony Clear
School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences
Auckland University of Technology
Private Bag 92006 Auckland, 1010 New Zealand
Tony.Clear@aut.ac.nz

Figures

F1Figure 1. The 'Driving' Values of Uber? (Adapted from Schwartz, 1992 [19])

F2Figure 2. Where are we heading? Outsourcing Made Easy [23]

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