Coders grapple with good and evil at WWDC's indie spinoff, AltConf

Coders grapple with good and evil at WWDC’s indie spinoff


Bill Atkinson, left and Andrew Stone chat each other up at AltConf in San Francisco June 3, 2014. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
Apple legend Bill Atkinson, left, and Andrew Stone talk Steve Jobs, drugs and the Internet at AltConf 2014 in San Francisco. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

SAN FRANCISCO — At Apple’s WWDC developer conference, there are talks about interface design, writing code and fixing bugs.

Across the street at indie spinoff AltConf, the talks are concerned with spying on users and making choices between good and evil.

“We have had a hand in creating one of the most dystopian and undesirable societies imaginable,” said Andrew Stone, a veteran programmer who once worked with Steve Jobs, during a talk entitled “What Have We Built Here?”

It’s not the kind of stuff you’d expect to hear at a developer’s conference, but in an age of widespread government spying and cynicism about corporate slogans like “Don’t be evil,” AltConf highlights that programmers are often presented with moral choices. There’s a growing awareness in the coding community that although the activity of programming is benign, what’s created can be used for evil. Take Maciej Cegłowski’s talk last month in Germany, which has been widely discussed on the Web. Cegłowski argues — convincingly — that the utopian ideals of the early internet have been thoroughly corrupted, and the entire industry is “rotten.”

AltConf is a free, drop-in event across the street from Apple’s WWDC. Where WWDC is big, tightly scheduled and strictly roped-off, AltConf is open and free, with an old-school hippie hacker vibe. People wander in and out all day: The conference attracts a steady stream of developers from across the street as well as those who couldn’t get a ticket for Apple’s massively oversubscribed event. Programmer Mike Lee set the tone Monday with an emotional talk called “Being Better.”

Lee’s talk encompassed Hitler, genocide and gun massacres — as well as writing good code.

Lee talked about how programmers can and should make moral choices. He encouraged the packed room to “be better,” to create software that helped people and broke barriers.

“If I can convince a small number of people at this conference to change, it can affect the way we live because as developers, we build the future,” he said afterward.

Later that afternoon, Stone followed up with a similar talk that featured images like Sauron, the all-seeing evil eye from the Lord of the Rings.

“Steve (Jobs) said things are made by people, and the person you decide to be determines the kind of things you make,” he told the crowd.

“We’ve built the ultimate surveillance state and filled it with mind-numbing, candy-crush zombies,” he added.

As revelations from National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked into the headlines over the past year, Stone said he “became sicker and sicker with outrage and a sense of betrayal — not just with the NSA, but their corporate partners.”

Stone said he took heart that Apple was one of the last technology companies to work with the NSA, holding out for about a year after Jobs’ death.

“Now is the time to create apps to solve the problems our apps have caused.”

“Consider what impacts your project may have,” he said. “Now is the time to create apps to solve the problems our apps have caused.”

Sitting in the audience, developer Adam Longfellow said he is conflicted about his popular camping app, Allstays Camp and RV.

“I struggle with this stuff myself,” he said. “I want to get people out there, but I don’t want people out there using my app. I want them to get out there and turn it off.”

Asked if Apple should have sessions at WWDC on ethics, Longfellow said it would be good if they did, but he thought it unlikely.

“They can’t have this kind of thing at a corporate conference,” he said. “Besides, they don’t want people turning off their devices — they want them buying a new one.”


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