Run your own Ethical Tech Brown Bag

Inspired by Dan Turner, who keeps on top of this more than I ever could.

Originally posted to LinkedIn.

Ethics has rightly earned it’s reputation as a ridiculously boring topic. Much of the existing canon on ethics sounds to the modern ear like theologian debating the number of angels in heaven.

Alan Cooper

What is an “ethical tech brown bag?” It’s quite simple really: it’s a meeting where you get a speaker, an interviewer, 40 minutes, a technology ethics topic, and BYO lunch. In my company, CSIRO’s Data61, a data science and engineering research institution in Australia and part of CSIRO, it’s a (mostly) monthly lunchtime event that we’ve been running internally for over 3 years. It sounds easy, but as momentum can be lost and sustaining energy for an internal meetup group (and eternally difficult subject) has certain difficulties. However, I think every organisation that wants to do ethical technology should be running some version of a Brown Bag where their staff can congregate to ask questions of how ethical development might be achieved though in a largely informal setting. But how did we get here? This article will detail the process of trying to keep this going and make it an event that works for our organisation (and as a UX Designer, I love processes!).

Ethics, being ethical, doing the right thing, who doesn’t aspire to this? (Actually maybe don’t answer that question). Though if it’s anything I’ve learned from The Good Place, aspiring to be ethical is often not enough but in our present world of technology, it seems that evading ethics faces often faces no consequences for the creators themselves. No wonder Chidi was continuously in distress. But in a world where data is now dubbed the new oil, how can one stave off existential nihilism when all the evidence points to us, as individuals, being clearly an insignificant data point? This is where we started. 


In January 2018, my former boss Hilary Cinis planned a lunch meeting (hence: brown bag) of colleagues to sit down and talk about ethics in technology. This was pre the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which we would be later discussing for months in shock, but often not getting far talking with just ourselves (mostly a table of immediate colleagues). Of course in CSIRO, being Australia’s national science agency, we have the benefit of a research ethics committee to oversee what we do and answer our questions. Unlike Scientists, however, technologists do not often have ethics, or web accessibility, as a mandatory component in their university educations and are fairly new to this knowledge.

Initially many people had many somewhat frazzled concerns: what ethics to follow and how and where are the correct resources? How am I meant to react to this new terrible thing that’s occurred and how does this apply to my work? Many times there was discussion of whatever was in the news. The stream of reports of unethical technology use seems to never end: there’s seemingly always new data breaches, or perhaps another way that children are being introduced to gambling or other vulnerable persons being exposed to algorithm derived harm. Not having many good answers for the solution of why or how this happened, in my experience, creates a certain kind of nihilistic dread: a paralysis of not knowing what one could do, but also feeling like a powerless against this particularly disruptive wave of the information age. 

When momentum falters, ask why

Around 6 months in, many regular members became very busy. Hilary, who initially lead it became increasingly in demand and I de facto took over. Regulars had stopped attending because of powerlessness they felt in reaction media material where the parties concerned didn’t seem bothered by ethics at all. However constantly sourcing new material that wasn’t centering around the same mistakes being made, or perhaps even willingly committed, was a time consuming exercise. There was one meeting where there was no topic prepared and many senior members of staff joined the call and there was simply nothing to discuss. When I emailed the list for whether it should be rescheduled there was jokes or apathy. Not ideal. 

At first I was fairly dismayed, but then I did ask a few regular people what do you want from this? This was tricky, as many members wanted to talk to people who actually knew what they were doing in this space, but it wasn’t clear maybe what that was in the technology space for non-specialists or people who do not make technology ethics their specialty – rather they might just doing it as part of their regular job. This is natural in the technology sphere, to try and find what development preceded the one you are working on, and copy or change it enough so it’s useful. I, myself, would put myself in that category. I’m more interested in the process of the ethics for a project was designed, and whether this worked or not. 

New Considerations

After a short hiatus, I lined up some speakers for presentations. I reached out to the greater CSIRO network in order to get new people who were not regulars to the brown bag meeting. Scientists, unlike necessarily developers, are very accustomed to answering ethical questions in their work. I asked them to prepare powerpoint slides – just like a regular meetup – instead of a round table discussion. 

This new format, however, put a lot of labour on potential speakers. Presentations can take a lot of time to prepare and finesse and not everyone is comfortable delivering an in-depth presentation to potentially an audience of the whole organisation (Data61 at maximum is around 1000 people with students) over video chat doesn’t always work well for those that aren’t co-located. There are also other important considerations, such as we’re a highly distributed, mobile, flexible and fairly diverse organisation and being Sydney centric isn’t advisable nor is it possible with how people work and try to fit in, for instance, caring duties. Hence, our meeting had to become something that everyone could do either in a hotel room or at home with pajama bottoms on, at the office, in a quiet library or co-working space, with little to no preparation beyond a reading or a YouTube video. Beginning with Claire Trenham, the meetup moved to a question and answer session of 40 minutes beginning at 12:05 with open questions from 12:40pm to 1pm Sydney/Melbourne/Canberra time. Many people who listen to the meeting at their desks preferred this format, it sounded more like a podcast than a formal discussion that required a lot of engagement in their lunch break or afterwards. 

Initially I interviewed all our participants but I wanted the meeting to be something everyone could feel they could do and own. Regularly I tried to pair up interviewees with interviewers in their industry, particularly in the case of me not fully understanding their technological background, to ask unique questions. The trouble with this is that it rarely yields volunteers and I get it, it’s a nerve wracking thing to do as a lot of people can be quite shy, or feel they’ll ask the wrong thing. It can be also be little confronting to have an unflattering widescreen web conference video recorded of you that’s distributed to the entire business, which as a larger woman with PCOS, I find a little hard to handle at times.

Where to now?

The ETBB was successfully taken over by two new chairs in 2021 – David Douglas and Yuwan Malakar. I think it’s important to let new people to take over and invite guests that they think are interesting, though there is always an open call for guests. But these things are really hard if one tries to run them all alone. Although I think investing in having these conversations and within organisations is really important it does requires a fair amount of moving parts. More people have to get better at interviewing, and in turn, hopefully asking important questions in projects. I’m hoping this gets larger than just a specific kind of Data61 (and therefore, engineering) based audience, as well, and we reach other parts of our organisation so we can learn more. But also get more external speakers.

Ethics, in the absolute simplest way, is largely based on thousands of years of thought. The problems of misuse in the tech industry aren’t really unlike those that physicists and chemists confronted in the early 20th century, with the misuse of nuclear and chemical weapons. I am not particularly interested in reading about ethics (woah, what!), I’d rather not have discussions about philosophy and I swore that a horrible assignment on Rousseau I wrote in high school would be the last I would ever touch of it. However, stories and reflection is how we learn, and blanking it out doesn’t serve anyone. There is a lot the tech industry could and will probably learn from these disciplines in the coming years and it’s important to keep listening.

I think you should run your own Ethical Technology Brown Bag in your organisation

Running an Ethical Tech Brown Bag is simple, and it just starts with a guest, a reading/video and an interviewer. You do not need to be an expert to interview someone nor do you need to be up to date on all there is to know about ethics ever, we are all learning. I am not a fully virtuous saintly person and I strongly doubt you are either, nor has your organisation always made the right call. But that shouldn’t stop the conversation from even starting. The key here is to not make perfect the enemy of good, start somewhere and follow where it could go and how that can work for your team and your organisation. When things are too difficult or require too much buy in, I’ve noticed that places that can ignore problems or nagging questions will continue to do just that. 

I think you should be inviting early career researchers/former academics to your organisation

But where to get great speakers? It’s true that CSIRO leverages a number of great connections. Once I started looking within our organisation, there was unsurprisingly a good number of experts that were writing amazing papers, contributing book chapters, or were just working on cool things, but maybe their work wasn’t the focus of the current tech news cycle, but were happy to chat for an hour about their work and the ethics considerations that underpinning it. In 2019 we had a lot more talk about digital surveillance and surveillance capitalism, which I thought was unexpected, but there are many upcoming cool researchers and technologists out there who I think are worth inviting (and, where appropriate, sponsoring) who are ahead of the curve on all of this before it hits the news cycle. As Darren Koppel informs me, there is value for early career researchers to be engaging with major organisations, both as a way of advertising their research and the fact that they are out there talking making that network. Find and reach other these early career researchers!

If inviting a speaker is not yet on your radar, there are also former academics that are finding new positions in the tech industry that are probably in your organisation somewhere with a huge wealth of lessons learned from the process of going through university ethics. Just get going and it’ll get easier, there’ll be regulars, and soon there’ll be a wealth of knowledge and connections to look back on that would have otherwise never happened. We went from having 8 people in a small room, to over 30 people joining in live from different states and more listening to recordings. Our topics have included: Cryptography morals, data ethics, environmental ethics, Smart Cities ethics, Citizen Science ethics, Digital Surveillance, tech internship ethics, Social Media surveillance, using “ill gotten” data for research, using physiological sensors for personality detection, and the future of ethics and innovation. It’s all got to start somewhere!

Would you like to come and speak at our Ethical Tech Brown Bag? Please get in touch!

BIG Thank You to all our previous guests:

And thank you to all the CSIRO employees and affiliates that have tuned in for Brown Bag years but also to the universe for allowing me to opportunity hang around all the good people at CSIRO. Super amounts of thanks to people who contributed to the feedback and encouragement of this article including Martijn Mooij, Viveka Weiley, Hilary Cinis, Dan Turner, Kristina Johnson and Georgina Ibarra. Also special shout out to the lovely people of Designer Hangout !

The Alan Cooper quote is from the forewood to “Future Ethics” by Cennydd Bowles.