‘There’s Not a Lot of Self-Reflection in Silicon Valley’: On Big Tech and Ethics
Evan Selinger in conversation with Mary Berk
This is Open Dialogue, an interview series from OneZero about technology and ethics.
I’m thrilled to talk with Mary Berk. Mary has a PhD in philosophy, a degree that includes a specialization in ethics, but spent her career working in Silicon Valley. Most recently, Mary was a product manager at Facebook and Instagram. Previously, Mary worked at Amazon, Google, Microsoft, eBay. Given Mary’s many years of experience and her disposition for critical thinking, she’s the perfect person to discuss whether Big Tech can care about ethics.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Evan: What got you interested in philosophy? I was drawn in right away during my first semester in college. My high school mostly offered the typical humanities courses, like English, Communications, and Social Studies. I almost couldn’t believe that a professional discipline exists that’s devoted to critically interrogating fundamental beliefs.
Mary: My fascination with philosophy started in high school. At the time, everyone told me I wasn’t really interested in it, that I was just curious about existential literature. They were wrong. I went into college intending to be a philosophy major. But when I sat down with my advisor freshman year and told him what I wanted to study, he said I didn’t really want to go down this path — and he was head of the philosophy department!
One more thing. I grew up in a very middle-class family. The question was always, “How are you going to support yourself as a philosopher?” So, there was a lot of pressure around that, and I was always keeping in mind a “plan B.”
Evan: Despite the raised eyebrows, you ended up getting a PhD in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University and writing a dissertation on Thomas Hobbes’ conception of rights. Why did you focus on Hobbes?
Mary: During my first year of graduate school, I wrote a paper on Hobbes. One of my professors stopped me in the middle of my presentation on it and said, “No, that’s wrong. Whose presentation is next?” After this…