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Why computing needs critical friends

Submitted on Monday, June 05, 2023

Professor Christoph Becker’s new book, Insolvent: How to Reorient Computing for Just Sustainability, has been called “a watershed in the growing literature on the world created by computer technology” and “compulsory reading for engineers, designers and everyone interested in technology.”  In this discussion, Professor Becker talks about some of the key themes of Insolvent, including the importance of making critical friends.

Q: Can you explain where Insolvent, the title of your book, comes from and how you use these terms in your book? 

CB: It’s wordplay on the ideas of problem solving and solvency insolvent being a very fitting term from finance. When you’re insolvent, you’re incapable of paying your debt. Insolvency can be met either with bankruptcy or with restructuring, reconfiguration and reorganization of the elements of the insolvent organization so that it can, in the future, operate differently to meet its obligations. That’s such an apt analogy, I think, for the state that we have in computing.  

Many in computing want to help the world become a more sustainable and more just place, and many are working on fantastic projects. But at the same time, computing and IT continue to inflict damage on our societies and the planet. I call that the debts of computing, and unfortunately, they are not paid back. This is partially because of the way we tend to think in the tech world. A lot of the conversation is shaped and distorted by underlying beliefs that prevent us from having the conversations we need to have. 

Q: One of those beliefs is what you call the myth of solvency. Can you explain it? 

CB: Essentially, the myth of solvency is the idea that problem solving is how we should bring technology into the world. It’s a very optimistic story, where technology is a sort of saviour figure, or the technologist is the saviour figure, and technology is a universal tool that we can use to solve any kind of problems we encounter, whether that’s poverty, or climate change, or inequality, or a lack of education, or gender equity, or whatever it is. In this story, problems are already there and we just discover them. 

This story is at the heart of how computer science defines itself as a discipline it’s a problem solving discipline. This is very explicitly stated in computer science curricula … [which are] very centered on the idea of problem solving as the main activity, and almost the only activity “let’s solve some problems.”  

The story is supposed to lead to a trajectory of progress and a happy ending. Unintended side effects aren’t much of a prominent theme or a concern, or they’re not really in the front window where we’re heading. We don’t see them, they’re somewhere in the back in the distance. 

headshot of professor christoph becker

“Insolvent is the story of how computing got stuck, how its critical friends can help it get unstuck, and where to go from here,” says Professor Christoph Becker.

When harms are identified in hindsight, they are seen as new problems that should be fixed or as inevitable costs of progress. People would say it’s too bad that Bitcoin uses so much energy, but we need to make progress. The overall story says all this is worth it.  If we look past that story, we see that computing is always both technical and social, that it has a history and politics, and everyone in tech has a social responsibility. We need to talk about how tech shapes our life and at the same time, we need to talk about how it comes to life. There is so much more than problem solving. 

Myths like the story of solvency are not told on the surface where they sound quite naïve – they are more like undercurrents in a river. They hide things and they distort what we can talk about on the surface. 

Q: It’s hard to understand how some of the now well-known consequences of Bitcoin don’t seem to have been contemplated. 

That is, unfortunately, very common in computing [even though] adverse consequences sometimes can be anticipated and are very often anticipated by those who critique these technologies. But computing likes to tell itself that it’s outside its remit to consider these far-reaching consequences, because those consequences are not about computing, and those consequences are far removed, and we can’t really know about them so we shouldn’t worry too much about them. The common pattern is to ask for forgiveness not consent. 

There could be a stronger understanding of such things as the precautionary principle … It is not used in computing ethics enough to assess the potential impact of new tech. Instead, the focus is often very narrow on solving one identified problem very efficiently and, and then seeing what happens. And that is, of course, dangerous and very short-sighted, and it causes a lot of harm. Instead of a narrow focus on ethics, we could instead ask, what values do we want to base our technologies on? How do we want these values to shape our technology? 

What happens when we design new technologies like Bitcoin, or any other technology that becomes used on a large scale, is that when a lot of people start using something, there are reinforcing feedback loops and dynamics that lead to impact on a larger scale. This goes beyond just the sum of the impacts that are caused by each individual. As a system, these dynamic effects have much more widespread and indirect impact. Just consider the fact that people have been developing Bitcoin mining operations in places that previously didn’t do any of that, because they provide cheap cooling power and cheap electricity. 

Q: In an earlier conversation, I asked you if Bitcoin should go away and you said, yes. Does that make you a Luddite? 

I don’t consider myself a Luddite and have not yet been called a Luddite. I get a different kind of critiques. But I will say that the term Luddite is used in a very misleading way nowadays, as people who just hate technology or are technophobes.  

In fact, the Luddites were labour organizers who had a very good understanding of technology and were not against technology. They were against the very specific configuration of technology that was designed to put them out of a job and marginalize their influence…I would be in a sense kind of honored to be considered one of them, but I don’t think that’s what it’s usually meant.  

[Note: Professor Becker also said in the earlier conversation that he was cautiously open to different types of digital currencies with less negative impact.} 

AB: In your book you argue that computing can be helped by what you call “critical friends.” 

Yes, I think we could do very well with more critical friendships across the different parts of the academy… A critical friend is someone who is ready to tell us the things we don’t really want to hear, but that are really good for us. It’s the kind of person that takes us aside and says to us, Look, you really got this the wrong way, and you’re inadvertently causing harm here, let me explain to you what you’re missing. Critical friends critique because they care, and so do I.  

Because they’re our friends, we listen to them. And then we might reconsider something we thought to be true or some of our reactions, and we might go back and apologize, or we might go read up about something that we hadn’t considered fully before. And that’s personal growth. That’s the positive side of critique. The reason I wrote this book is not because I hate computing, but because I love computing, because it can be amazing. It’s just that the computing we now have is stuck, and we need to figure out a better path forward for it. Insolvent is the story of how computing got stuck, how its critical friends can help it get unstuck, and where to go from here.  

AB: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about what’s ahead? 

I’m hopeful  in the sense that I believe that we have something to do, and that we can make a difference. That doesn’t deny that there is a lot of very real suffering and that in many ways, the world is currently a very dark place. But it means that we can figure out what to do about it, and we can improve the world. I used to call myself an optimist, but I don’t like this polarization. Both optimism and pessimism underplay the role of our individual agency. I think it is very important that we take responsibility for what we can do and do something about it. For me, writing the book is one of those things I realized I could do. And now I’m trying to figure out what else I can do. 

This interview was conducted and edited for brevity and clarity by Ann Brocklehurst. 

Insolvent goes on sale on Tuesday, June 6. If you want to support a local bookstore, you can buy it online or in person from Ben McNally Books