The Pressures Of Programming

19 / 10 / 2021

Read Time 20 minutes

We have technology to thank for many of our modern luxuries and securities, and additionally, we also have the producers of those technologies to thank. However, there is a dark side to all this progress and programming. In order to produce these technologies, as well as make some profit along the way, countless people have been exploited and abused – many times in the name of progress. Examples such as the welfare of the labour force during the industrial revolution and modern sweatshops make this point exorbitantly clear. We have, though, in modern times, come to understand that worker health and safety are important aims, along with the usual innovation and profit-making, for companies and corporations to have. Employees have rights that are meant to protect them; maximum working hours, fair compensation, and safe working environments are a few examples. Yet, even with all of this, employees can still be harmed should their general wellbeing not be of chief concern to their employers. In this essay, I want to outline what Business Ethicists call Corporate Social Responsibility, briefly explaining the concept and discussing the argument in support of it, and then use a specific example within the modern tech industry to clarify the position and bring some relevance to the discussion. I hope to convince you that companies have a moral responsibility towards their employees and that this requires actions not stipulated by law. All of this will be used to support the argument that modern tech companies might have a moral failing on their hands in the form of unnecessarily long working hours and misassigned jobs. This might not be the most significant issue we currently face, but I believe it is still worthwhile taking a look, especially considering the potential for the tech industry to be one of the largest employers in the world. 

Now, I am not going to be the person to suggest that we should all have 6-hour workdays and 4-day workweeks. Maybe this is too ambitious for now, perhaps once the robot overlords take control of all the means of production, and we only need to entertain our masters a few hours a week (I can dream). No, I do not want to suggest anything so drastic, but I do think we need to pay attention to the current trends in what is one of the biggest industries in the world. 

On the global and historical scale, people work fewer hours a day on average now than they did about two hundred years ago. During the 1400 – 1600s, the average working hours per year was around 1980 hours; that is, working with a 5-day workweek (261 working days a year), a 38-hour workweek. In the 1800s, that average shot up to somewhere close to 3400 hours a year; a 65-hour workweek (peak industrial revolution). Today the average workweek is somewhere around 40 – 45 hours, with some of the more developed countries dropping to about 36 hours a week. 

The above is, in large part, the result of more worker rights and better working conditions. We have recognised that people require a certain level of security, of comfort, of rest, and a fair reward; otherwise, we end up dehumanising people and actively harming our workforce, both physically and mentally. These legal securities are not the only changes that have helped with worker wellbeing. Many companies have now also taken a cultural shift, deciding to invest in some of the psychological luxuries workers enjoy – such as food and drink services, comfortable and relaxing working environments, and extra games and activities that help employees unwind and re-energise. These extra luxuries are not legally required, but they are chiefly concerned with the wellbeing and moral rights of company stakeholders – in this case, the employees. This set of actions thus falls under what Business Ethicists call Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): any actions of a company that are not legally required and that are intended to benefit persons other than the company itself. 

Notice, some of the examples provided above might have positive benefits for companies who make use of them, such as tax breaks and employee loyalty. It does help employers that there is a feedback loop where companies are benefited indirectly through their employees being more happy and productive on average. But this is not what is meant by CSR. There might be secondary benefits for the company, but the chief aim is a moral obligation. Companies usually have the means and the staff to be able to do all kinds of things, but we have to ask if they should do them, not just if they could. In much the same way, employers can push their employees and get them to perform in all kinds of ways. But again, we can ask, is this fair? Is it fair that employees are treated this way, is it the right thing to do? More than this, do companies not have an obligation to help those they can, including their employees? I will attempt to answer these questions and provide an example below. 

The motivation for CSR is a moral one that stems from the fact that corporations have certain obligations to people and society and the fact that they happen to be in positions where they have a great deal of influence over communities and peoples’ lives. The arguments presented in favour of CSR are usually consequentialist and start from the premises that where there are evils/wrongs/suffering, the agents who are capable of stopping them have an obligation to do so. They then argue that companies are in many ways agents themselves (all be it a collection of agents acting in “uniform”) who are also in the privileged positions of being able to help people where individuals would struggle to do so. They then conclude that because of all of this, companies have moral obligations to help where they can. In what follows, I will attempt to introduce such an argument briefly; all be it a very basic one that relies on analogies – this is to keep things simple. 

To start, we need to establish that agents have a moral obligation to alleviate the wrongs in the world should they have it within their powers. The easiest way to do this is to consider a thought experiment in which a random passerby comes across a child in the process of drowning, and then to ask what we expect this passerby to do. Most would accept that the passerby has an obligation to help the child, at least as long as it is within their powers to do so without endangering their own life. To say that it is not their responsibility because they did not cause the situation misses the point; doing nothing and letting someone die seems equally as wrong as pushing them in, especially if you just need to reach in and help them out. The point is, it seems perfectly reasonable to believe that should you have the means to help someone who truly requires it, and it costs you very little, there is a justified expectation of you to help. 

The second thing to establish is that companies have a similar responsibility to help in the same way people in general do. This tends to turn on more nuanced discussions of agency and responsibility for actions due to multiple agents. In the interests of brevity, I will not present a fully detailed argument here; instead, I will lay out what one needs to accept in order to agree that companies have some moral obligations to help where possible. First, as I mentioned previously, your ethics need to contain some notion of consequentialism; you need to believe that agents, on average, should not cause more harm than they do good (this is outlined, more or less, in the paragraph before this one). Second, you need to agree that multiple agents can be responsible for what we would consider a single action. If two people rob a bank, but their roles in the process are somewhat different, would you argue that they are morally responsible to different degrees? Say, for example, Robber1 was the gunman and intimidator while Robber2 was the bagman and safecracker. When everything is said and done, Robber1 had killed three people and injured another while Robber2 had accessed the money and taken all of it in a bag. They planned all of this together, fled together, and shared the money. Would you blame them differently; would you blame Robber1 for murder and Robber2 for theft alone? Or, would you agree that both acted in uniform through their motives and goals, and are therefore both responsible for the murder of three people and the robbing of the bank? If you agree with the second, you should agree that a collection of agents (like, say, a company) can share collective responsibility. 

If the above sounds reasonable to you, CSR should be justified; corporations have, above their usual legal obligations, similar to standard agents, a moral responsibility towards society and their employees. With this being the case, I want to use a particular example and argue that we might have a problem on our hands in the modern tech industry. 

The first thing to note is that although global average working hours have gone down, the average working hours for tech developers (programmers and architects) has slowly increased and is higher than the general standard. While the average is around 40 – 45 hours a week, a large portion of full-time tech developers work an average of 52 hours a week. The above-average working hours is already a red-flag, but in addition to this, research shows that productivity does not increase uniformly as working hours increase. Studies seem to indicate that productivity dramatically decreases as working hours increase and that productivity reaches its limit at around 55-hour workweeks. They also show that regular overtime work is linked to many adverse psychological effects. Even closer to home, although South Africans have very long workweeks compared to many other countries, our productivity is not nearly as high – our over-worked labour force is not even doing that well. 

There is another issue that tech companies need to be cognisant of: surveys show that one of the biggest headaches for developers is user-related support queries. They are incredibly time consuming, and their nature is such that developers are often removed from the sort of headspace in which they enjoy developing. Furthermore, companies with larger departments with dedicated support staff showed shorter average working-hours with similar productivity. This is something specific to the tech industry that we can quickly solve. Developers deserve a consistent working environment and companies have almost nothing to lose by diversifying their employee roles. 

Given all of the above along with the fact that, according to most trends, the tech industry is set to get bigger, we need to be careful of the sorts of expectations we place on tech employees. Although long working-hours are often fairly compensated via pay in the legal sense, as mentioned, companies have responsibilities towards their employees over and beyond these regular legal rights. They need to be aware of the sort of psychological stress that the above kinds of working environments can cause for employees. We need to ensure that the reward workers get from their job is fair and equal against the time and effort they put into it. Tech developers are already in the position of often having to solve complex issues using limited, highly analytical tools. They are also often socially isolated during their work; having to place their focus on the software at hand. If companies are going to combine this with overly long working-hours and tedious, impertinent work; then I believe they are partially responsible for the unnecessary and dehumanising suffering of people. This is definitely a moral wrong and should stop. It is not fair to treat employees this way and have some suffer while others reap all the rewards. 

Now, of course, let us contextualise all of this. The world is undoubtedly full of evils that seem to demand more of our attention than the modern problems of tech workers. However, there are still good reasons to focus on these small sets of wrongs. I want to bring attention to two: 1) we are in an age where we understand that psychological stress and harm can be just as detrimental as physical harm, and 2) the growing nature of the tech industry and the potential for its massive workforce and importance are good reasons to focus on it right now. 

On the first point, the world is full of problems, and one of them is the worryingly large amount of suicides committed every year. Research shows that more than 800,000 people die of suicide every year and that suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young people. This is a tragedy and not something any industry would want to contribute to: we need to make sure employees are taken care of and that they feel safe and motivated. 

With regards to the second point, as I’ve mentioned, the tech industry is growing. Not only this, but our culture and society are changing, and we are becoming ever more reliant on technology and software. What is now only a somewhat large portion of a very specific job sector, might in the future turn out to be a large section of our general population given current societal and cultural trends. It is, therefore, in our best interests to focus on this industry now and create the sort of environment where workers of the future are already protected. 

We are in many ways entering a new era in civilisation with all kinds of new challenges and struggles. Luckily though, we can learn from the past and use the present to better the future. One of our goals should be fair labour practice with a sustainable goal, and part of this should be to have happy and healthy employees. I currently work as a Business Analyst at a software company, and I do not personally have much to complain about. But I am very aware of the stresses that the developers I work with face thanks to their jobs. Not only this, but I also have other friends working at much larger corporations who experience very long working hours and a lot of personal stress thanks to “support jobs”. I cannot help but think that very much of this is unnecessary and due to a lack of focus and attention on worker experience and health by employers.  

The world is changing, and we need leaders who are both innovative as well as ethical. There was a period in time were the chief concern of corporations was to make as much profit as possible. Although this sort of goal might help with innovation and development, it tends to destroy the very people its goods were meant to help. Today we understand that among our foremost concerns should be employee health and safety and a sustainable and positive objective. Employers need to make sure they treat their employees with respect and that working environments are conducive to worker health. Considering the scale and importance of the tech industry, I believe we need to keep a specific eye on tech employers and ensure that the industry grows and progresses on sound ethical footing. 

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