Filosofia Política

Tech and Philosophy: the debate in Kumasi, Ghana.

Last month, I went to Ghana. The first week and a half, I travelled around the south of the country with J, visiting Accra, a bit of Volta Region, Cape Coast and Elmina. For two weeks after that, we went a bit north and joined Global Code program in KNUST, the university in Kumasi. J. taught some coding. I did something quite different.

The first day in Kumasi, while having breakfast at the Guesthouse, the package with all the material for the students arrived. We headed to the Lab by taxi and got ready. The classroom distribution was not the best for the method and strategies we were trying to encourage. Desks were individual, fixed on the floor and had wooden “walls” isolating the students. It was impossible to move the tables and create collective working spaces, and one of the most important things Global Code wants to teach is collaborative work.

The concept of time was radically different and, to be fair, the lack of time tables or public transport did not help either: everyday, many students arrived very late. We came across several technical problems, and we managed to solve all of them with patience, collaboration and creativity. S and J were definitely a good team.

At the beginnning, we were welcoming just men! I was looking forward to meet the women in the program, since S. had actively chosen 50% female participation. Women in tech are not that many anywhere, so I was happy to see such a nice proportion. However, N. and J. were the only women in Kumasi. N. was very shy, she was not a student of Computer Engineering and although she managed to keep up and get things done, she was not so confident. J, on the other hand, did know a lot more about programming, came from Computer Science and enjoyed participating in the class.

Ib. told me things had been complicated for some of the women in Kumasi: for example, some of them needed permission from their parents. Despite these ugly numbers, the other universities (Cape Coast, Accra, Koforidua and Ho) were hosting a lot of women in the program and helped mantaining almost 50/50 proportion.

Days went by solving problems and getting to know the students. I got to learn some python language thanks to S.and J, although I focused on preparing some slides for the Tech Ethics presentation. This is what I wrote the day we got to create the Tech Ethics debate with the undergraduate students in Kumasi:

Me, asking questions and more questions, because that is how critical thinking happens.

Friday, it’s Friday! We are a little bit tired after the first week, but excited because our group of students is very good. They pay attention, they are respectful and they are also starting to get along with us, making jokes and wanting to talk. I get a few sentences in Spanish they have been probably asking google, and we are all learning while enjoying. 

I also get my slides finished for lunch time, so we decide I can use some time after lunch for the presentation. I am a little bit nervous: do they know anything about philosophy or ethics? Will they enjoy this kind of theoretical class after having been playing with LEDs, having fun with the “disco” lights or some cool sounds?

Well, I just need to give it a try. Tech Ethics, everyone! I get started by asking them if they have been taught some Ethics in their classes before. I get some positive answers: A. tells me they have studied matters of Intellectual Property, but they haven’t been studying deeper thoughts.

When I start talking, they are silent. But I keep throwing questions at them; I don’t want to be an “ethics teacher” (who am I to do that!), I want them to think and debate with me and with each other.

My questions are a bit of a trap, I admit: “is tech bad? Is tech good?” Computer Science students go for the good choice, of course. I am sure my colleghes at Philosophy Faculties would probably argue the opposite.

After hearing their opinions, I move on through the slides giving them examples of how Tech advancements mostly bring paradoxical consequences, good and bad, that need to be contemplated. We talk about the goods of Global Communication, wondering whether it is really that global. We talk about how the tools for Global Communication have also brought the problem of Invasion of Privacy. We discuss if the free information access is really that accessible for everyone. We introduce the question of equality: is tech helping get more equality in the world, or is it just adapting itself to all pre-existing inequalities? The “Good Tech” utopic ideal defends that Tech has brought more equal opportunities for all, for education and businesses… But, is that so?

I finish leading the examples, I explain the role of Committees in Bioethical issues, and wonder about the need of similar Committees for Tech Advancements. And finally, I let them take control and start the debate. 

At that point, I am surprised because I get a lot of reactions. Lots of hands are up, wanting to express their thoughts. Most of them try to defend “Good Tech and Science”, as I was expecting. At that point, I clarify that asking whether Tech is good or bad is just a trap: Tech is a neutral thing, an object humans use, an object deeply influenced by politics, economics and society. Tech is what we make of it. But then, what is their role as software developers?

I do not have to give answers to that, because they are ready to find them. A. thinks it is not the software engineer’s responsibility if someone uses their product to hack, steal private information or do other kinds of damage. B, the lecturer that has been joining most of our classes, answers A, more or less something like this: “we are not directly responsible for the damages that can be done, but we have a moral obligation of evaluating the possible consequences and use what we know to avoid the negative outcomes of our products”. I smile, feeling very satisfied with his answer and the result of the debate. We got a few very interesting comments. For example, Am. shared his thoughts about the complex situation you get when you want a network to be safe, and in pursuit of this security you end up invading the users privacy. The difficult dynamic between privacy and security is a matter that really interests me, I had not directly brought it up, so I am really glad he did.

After the debate, they go back to playing with the Raspberry Pies and the LEDs or sounds. At the end of the class, S and I say goodbye to the students (especially S, who is flying back to London the next day!).

Friday night! So all of us decide to go back to a nice restaurant Ib showed us to celebrate the good outcomes of the first week of class. We share a well deserved cold beer, listen to some live music and say goodbye to S the next morning. We will miss him!

I do not know how to thank all the students in Kumasi. They were respectful and kind, and the also participated and debated together about matters they did not need to care about… Thank you for the experience, all of you!

At the end of my volunteering in Kumasi, I did the same in UG (Accra). But about that, I will not write yet. Maybe later…

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