Creating norms in tech, and the climate crisis

I recently started working to help get a document together to help set some norms in the tech community (such that there is one) about our actions in relation to the climate crisis. So far, it’s been referred to as a climate code of conduct, and there was some push back about using the term code of conduct in this way, and it seemed worth sharing my thoughts here, so I can refer to them later.

Why you might call a normative document about how we work, a Code of Conduct

We have no generally accepted formal code of ethics like other professions in tech.

But one of the closest things we have seen work in a normative sense are Codes of Conduct.

They have changed behaviour at conferences and set norms that would not otherwise be followed, and as a result created a space that is accessible to people who previously did not feel safe.

One of the reasons I think Codes of Conduct can be effective is that they by designed to be universal, normative, inclusive, iterative, and explicit.

Codes of Conduct are explicit about what we consider acceptable, and there are consequences for not following them. There’s also an expectation that they evolve over time, as we learn more about who is being harmed, and try to include them in the conversation.

Crucially, they’re already in use – we currently rely on them to establish norms at conferences, but also for virtual spaces, like open source projects, online communities and so on.

I’m currently not aware of a mechanism that’s as widely used as codes of conduct for setting norms around behaviour, but I’d love to find out if there was.

Why you might not call such a normative document a Code of Conduct

Codes of conduct have previously been applied at or around events, and primarily refer to how attendees address each other inside the space itself.

It’s been a huge amount of work to get them accepted, and many brave people have had to put themselves in harm’s way for this to happen.

Including something as structural as an organisation’s policy around climate change, or a person’s individual decisions about travel, because they’re not directed at a given person, can feel like a stretch of the term Code of Conduct.

You might feel like this , even if someone’s individual decisions result in harm to the people you might want conferences, and by extension, the tech community as it grows -remember, the fastest growing tech communities are not in Europe or North America, bt mostly what you might call the global south now.

The result of this is you might feel really uncomfortable about using the term Code of Conduct in this way – it’s different to how Codes of Conduct have been used previously – and you might worry that it would weaken what a Code of Conduct already stands for.

A different frame – protecting against different kinds of violence

When I first heard the “this weakens a Code of Conduct” argument in tech, I felt pretty miffed, as it felt like taking the one tool in tech communities, that’s been historically useful against oppression of minority groups, as it basically felt like saying:

“screw you, I got mine, and those other people over there don’t matter enough for me to be okay with you using that term”

It seemed to go against everything I read about intersectional theory, and the number of people objectively being harmed by actions we’ve been taking in the global North for the past few decades left a really, really bad taste in my mouth.

I need to stress – I don’t think that’s the case, and I’ve only shared it here as I think it’s more useful to acknowledge emotions when you feel them, and then work to share how you moved on from feeling that way, for the benefit others in a similar situation.

Violence – more forms than just the physical

One term, or way to look at thing that helped me get past this, was understanding how people talk about violence.

It might be useful to understand a specific use of the term violence, and specifically, structural violence as described in Wikipedia as it helped me make a distinction in the two positions above, about using Codes of Conduct. I first came across it when reading Violent Borders.

One way people talk about violence is in terms of behavioural violence (sometimes referred to as direct violence), cultural violence, or structural violence.

  • Behavioural (or direct) violence – might typically refer to one person targeting one person specifically, and generally mistreating them, or causing them harm. This is the probably what we think of the most when we hear the term violence.
  • Cultural violence, as the name suggests is about creating or supporting a culture that legitimises or justifies this kind of direct violence.
  • Structural violence, tends to refer to decisions that result in harm happening to someone, even if we don’t mean to do it. The harm is typically caused in a more widespread, diffuse way, and while the damage done is real, it’s harder to pin it down to a single person, or identify a single person as a target. There might be deliberate policy decisions inflicting structural violence, but generally speaking, it’s much harder to see things like this as a direct form of violence.

Codes of conduct as we have used them so far seem to refer to direct violence (i.e. one person directly treating someone terribly), and cultural violence (stuff that might that lead to, justify or legitimize this kind of direct violence), and as such, they take steps to protect people against them.

I haven’t found any Codes of Conduct or similar in tech, that explicitly refer to structural violence or have explicit safeguards against it.

And yet – many of the problems around the climate, are you might call structural violence.

People choose to run servers that are powered by burning coal, or choose to fly all over the place – someone absolutely booked a flight to do this, to chose one provider over another. There’s a link between these things and a changing climate, and as we’ve seen with heatwaves in India of late, There is a definite human cost.

But it’s not direct violence aimed at a specific person.

Why this matters.

I’m working on a document that currently uses the term of Code of Conduct in the context of Climate, and I’m struggling with this at the mo.

There is no real kind of commonly accepted, effective normative mechanism in tech in use that people explicitly agree to follow, like a code of ethics, or practice, or charter, like other professions.

The Code of Conduct is the closest thing we have that I can think of right now, that is universal, normative, inclusive, iterative, explicit, and most importantly widely used.

The thing is, using the term Code of Conduct to talk about structural decisions and policy in this way, is a departure from how they’ve been used before.

When it comes to the climate crisis, there are clear things we need to do, and that we are are objectively failing to do, and harm is being done to countless people as a result.

I’d find it really useful to learn about other mechanisms that are powerful like Codes of Conduct, in widespread use, and don’t result in this kind of scope creep to how we currently think of Codes of Conduct – if you know any, I’d love you hear form you.

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