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Technology and knowledge create responsibility

The Chaos and hacker communities made a good and important step towards more awareness in dealing with technology many decades with the hacker ethics and its later additions. However, a lot has happened since the 1980s, when the last two principles were added, and our lives are now much more influenced by technology than they were almost 40 years ago. Time for an update.

A few weeks ago, I was a mentor at Jugend Hackt Heidelberg. It’s a great event that invites learning, discussion and reflection. It happened that I spontaneously gave the obligatory talk about hacker ethics. If you don’t know it yet and want to know more, there is a very nice, short talk about it on the YouTube channel of Jugend Hackt.

During the preparations for the presentation, I mainly thought about what I wanted to impart to the young people and how I wanted to explain the individual principles. In the process, I noticed that among the existing 8 principles, I was missing a very important point: Responsibility.

Although it is implied in some of the points, in my eyes it is too important to simply be subtext. Therefore, with this article I would like to propose an addition of a ninth principle.

Technology and knowledge create responsibility.

With our knowledge of technology and its context, we are in a position to advance and support society, but also to change it completely. At the same time, we are often invisible in a certain way. But that does not absolve us of responsibility for our actions.

It is still rare for the technical community to address this issue. Thus, the ethics of our actions still receive too little attention as a topic in courses of study, training, school, but also at our own events.

However, without it being an explicit part of hacker ethics so far, we as Chaos are already very active in using our knowledge responsibly. The CCC is regularly represented in an advisory capacity in a wide variety of important institutions, whether as an expert witness in constitutional court in Karlsruhe or in politics. But there are also many smaller and larger projects, such as Chaos macht Schule, that make an important contribution. The trust we have created over the years in this way both creates and is responsibility.

This is also evident when we repeatedly intervene in current social debates. For example, the debate about what a responsible technology for tracking Corona infections might look like.

Use public data, protect private data.

The previous principles offer a lot of room for interpretation, but are nevertheless applied especially in the classic context of IT security.

We have to know our responsibility when we find poorly secured data and security gaps. This is not only about the misconduct of others, but also about protecting the data we have accumulated in the process and being aware of the consequences that publication could have for those affected by it.

Thus, a well-intentioned disclosure of data - for example to the press - can have dramatic consequences. Two examples are the Wikileaks publications, as well as those of Snowden. My aim is not to judge them here, but they are two cases that are similar and yet could hardly be any more different.

Just like technology, hacking has evolved. Today, we are not only hacking new technologies, but, for example with biohacking, find entirely new ways. In this process, hacking and our values have found their way into a wide variety of companies.

This makes dealing with our own actions ethically particularly important. Because even if we ask ourselves the appropriate questions, there are always cases in which good and evil are not so easy to separate, or where there are people who have a different moral compass. One thing is clear, however: every technology has the potential to be abused by people.

But technological progress and the things we create also have much more concrete consequences. For example, we are facing extensive job loss through automation in many industries. The professions affected may be obsolete, but the people who do them today certainly are not. We have to find solutions taking these people with us and offer them good perspectives. This is not a task that we can solve alone but it is our responsibility, as the originators of this technology, to push for a solution that is good for everyone and to demand it together with those we affect.

In large and small high-tech companies, we create algorithms whose workings we no longer understand, but which at the same time reproduce and embody our darkest social abysses. We create algorithms that evaluate and disadvantage people. At the same time, we must never forget that behind these data points are people with the most diverse lives and needs.

Technology can also become a problem when it is not equally accessible to all. One example I never tire of repeating are the refrigerators in the supermarket around the corner. You can open the doors without touching them using a light barrier, which is great, especially in this day and age. However, this only works if you have light skin. If your skin is too dark, the doors stay closed. It is our responsibility to recognise problems like that and fight to fix them. And more importantly, it is our duty to think about such problems in our jobs and to prevent them even before they occur.

Responsibility becomes particularly important when it comes to the future. This is shown impressively by the protests of the various for Future movements, which emphatically point out that we should not be indifferent to future generations.

Our responsibility lies in the sustainable use of technology and resources, and in the assessment of the consequences of our actions on our environment. A negative example for me is Bitcoin or other proof-of-work cryptocurrencies, as they currently consume gigantic amounts of electricity completely unnecessarily and only for the profit of a few. But our desire for ever new toys, the ever latest technology, also raises the question of how responsible it is. Because one thing it certainly isn’t: sustainable.

We are committed to being creative with technology, so why not use this creativity here?

Access to computers and anything that can show you how this world works should be unlimited and complete.

In the end, however, for all the enthusiasm and all the improvements that technology offers, it is just as important to make technology understandable, to explain it so that it does not work like magic, triggers fears or creates new problems. In doing so, we must not place ourselves above the people who do not (yet) understand this technology.

Some of what I have listed above may not directly affect hacking and thus – in your eyes – yourself. However, our actions are not detached from our environment, and neither are our actions or our everyday life. I therefore don’t see the term hacker as a term that only describes a person’s activity. Rather, it is the attitude of questioning one’s own environment, exposing grievances, the urge wanting to understand and improve, to find creative new ways or to create art and beauty. All that is described by the wonderful German term ‘Zerforschung’ (A coinage out of ‘to dissect’ and ‘to research’).

We also have to realise that our knowledge is limited and we cannot always foresee the consequences of what we create. Therefore, we should also question ourselves, as we already do the authorities, but always with respect and consideration for each other.

We must not withdraw from society, but become active. We must tackle the crucial problems like the pandemic, climate change, pollution, discrimination, the multiple divisions in society together and perhaps in our creative way.

We have to take responsibility.

This text is a translated version of a previous article in German.