Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence

Peaceful code of conduct sparks rage in Silicon Valley

Hi tech firm’s code, based on ancient monks’ practice, deemed “just disgusting”
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D. Richard Hipp

It all started innocently enough.

Suppliers asked Richard Hipp, the founder of SQLite, which developed the world’s most widely used database engine, found in mobile phones, Macs, and Windows PCs, if his company had a Code of Conduct. In light of recent complaints about harassment, some companies refuse to do business with a company that doesn’t have one. SQLite (“Small Fast Light Choose any three.”) hadn’t ever developed one, due to lack of serious internal problems in that area. So, to comply, Hipp went out and found a Code that had stood the test of time (1500 years): The Rule of St. Benedict

Benedict of Nursia (c. AD 480–550) lived as the Roman Empire was slowly petering out. Drawn to a life of prayer, contemplation, and reading himself, he developed a reasonable code of conduct for those who wished to live in a Christian monastic community with those aims:

It is this combination of compassion and discipline that made the Rule a model for many later monastic orders besides the Benedictine, and one reason why monasticism became such a viable life for so many over the next centuries, during which the institution literally shaped the future of Europe. Benedict of Nursia” at Christian History

Hipp then went away and forgot about the code until it hit the fan:

“Your code of conduct is a terrible joke,” wrote one angry user. “Wow, you really didn’t understand sh*it, did you? What you’re doing there is just disgusting.”

“I will stop using SQLite wherever I can,” another user declared. “Please apologize publicly, replace bogus CoC by some actual CoC that addresses issues marginalised groups actually have, and if required (and I strongly suppose it is required!) seek professional help to avoid this kind of behaviour in the future.” He pointed out that Linux kernel creator Linus Torvalds is seeking therapy after being shamed for his bad online behavior, “so can you.” Paula Bolyard, “Tech Community Outraged after SQLite Founder Adopts Benedictine Code of Conduct” at PJ Media

There were two problems: First, the Code is quite religious

First of all, love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole soul, and your whole strength.
Then, love your neighbor as yourself.
Prefer nothing more than the love of Christ…

Copy of the Rule of St. Benedict, 8th century

And therefore

Do not give way to anger.
Do not nurse a grudge.
Do not entertain deceit in your heart.
Do not give a false peace.
Do not forsake charity.
Do not swear, for fear of perjuring yourself.
Utter only truth from heart and mouth.
Ending with “Never despair of God’s mercy”

That said, Hipp did receive messages of support from atheists as well as Christians and Jews in the industry.

A bigger problem is that Codes of Conduct are supposed to focus on forbidding harassment or discrimination against various identities. Benedict, of course, says nothing about such matters: If you are a monk, you are a monk. That is your identity and the Rule enables you to be a better monk.

In the end, SQLite kept the Rule as a Code of Ethics and adopted Mozilla’s more conventional Code of Conduct instead. For example,

All Mozilla events will have designated a specific safety guideline with emergency and anti-abuse contacts at the event as well as online. These contacts will be posted prominently throughout the event, and in print and online materials. Event leaders are requested to speak at the event about the guidelines and to ask participants to review and agree to them when they sign up for the event.

Do such codes make a difference to behavior? The Google Code of Conduct does sound serious:

Harassment, Discrimination, and Bullying

Google prohibits discrimination, harassment and bullying in any form – verbal, physical, or visual, as discussed more fully in our Policy Against Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation. If you believe you’ve been bullied or harassed by anyone at Google, or by a Google partner or vendor, we strongly encourage you to immediately report the incident to your supervisor, Human Resources or both. Similarly, supervisors and managers who learn of any such incident should immediately report it to Human Resources. HR will promptly and thoroughly investigate any complaints and take appropriate action.

That said, in one of many current news stories slamming “bro-grammers,” we learn that Google chief executive Sundar Pichai told employees in an internal memo obtained by the Washington Post that as many as 48 people have been fired from Google over sexual harassment allegations, with no exit package, in the past two years, including 13 who were senior managers or above:

The memo comes after the New York Times reported Thursday that Google paid Andy Rubin, the creator of the Android mobile operating system, $90 million after he left the company in 2014 over an allegation of sexual misconduct. Google also invested heavily in Rubin’s next project, according to the report, which also highlights two other cases in which the company seemingly protected employees accused of sexual harassment. Brian Fung, “Google, after report it protected sexual harassers, tells staff it’s ‘dead serious’ about misconduct” at Chicago Tribune

Overall, there is a problem with the “If we catch you, we will fix you good” approach to behavior, as embodied in such standard codes of conduct.

It doesn’t build “esprit de corps,” that is, “a feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty shared by the members of a particular group.”

Such a feeling is common among professionals with high standards. The assumption is that no member of the group would wish to either be—or be seen as—a jerk. Bad behavior affects everyone identified with the bad actor. The emphasis of such groups’ codes is not on punishment for obviously unacceptable behavior but on helping members sort out the more complex problems that might occur when, say, two standards appear to conflict.

Whether or not the Rule of St. Benedict is suited to a high tech workplace, the strategy of frightening or policing people out of bad behavior implies low expectations. One thing it means is, there will be many more news stories about harassment to come.

See also: There is no universal moral machine. The “Moral Machine” project, aimed at creating righteous self-driving programs, revealed stark differences in values

and

Who assumes moral responsibility for self-driving cars? (Jonathan Bartlett) Can we discuss this before something happens and everyone is outsourcing the blame?