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Technical decisions are moral decisions

Henri Stern

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May 10, 2022

We write this sentence at the bottom of our website and all the emails we send out to our users.

Behind every technical decision we make as engineers, we are working to shape the world, to make it more as we think it already is, or ought to be. Obviously dark patterns abound, but beyond so blatantly engineering behavior, we project a worldview into everything we build. By making a “confirm” button blue and a “cancel” button white, we push our users to confirm. By ordering recommended tips in descending order on PoS terminals, with the largest tips on the left and the smallest on the right, we are pushing customers to tip more.

So why do we, at Privy, write these words out so frequently?

History is strewn with smart, well-meaning engineers unknowingly opening Pandoran boxes. Ethan Zuckerman, the creator of the pop-up ad, acknowledges “I’m sorry, our intentions were good.”

So we spell out these words as a reminder to ourselves that with every line of code we write, we stand to bring about new paradigms. With every default we implement, we are shaping the internet we want to live in. We say these words not out of a sense of superiority or to drape ourselves in morality. On the contrary, it is a reminder that the systems we build matter, our mistakes have consequences, and we would do well not to forget it.

Acknowledging the moral reach of our work will not save us from making mistakes, or more complex yet, tradeoffs. Great technology, especially as pertains to privacy and identity, is far too morally valent for that to be possible. Recognizing this does nothing to absolve us of the responsibility we bear for the systems we build, but it does create a forum in which we can recognize mistakes and work to correct them.

In building Privy, we choose to throw our hat in the ring to build better data systems on the web and help empower users to reclaim ownership over their online identity (which is to say their identity in this day and age). Building in the open and acknowledging our mistakes gives us the tools to recognize them, mitigate them, and correct them over time, in conversation with developers and users the Web-over.

Web3 is sowing the seeds of new data paradigms on the web. In the coming weeks, we will start opening up our client libraries, documentation and system. We can’t wait to show you what we’ve been up to!

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