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Day 39: on ethics

Posted on 3 mins read

ethics moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.

That’s too hard. Let’s try again, but this time with my own words:

ethics taking into consideration the consequences of your actions. Basically, asking yourself “should I really do that?” more often.

My definition is simpler, that’s for sure. But it also leaves something out of the entire picture. The idea of moral principles. Principles, like values, are the overarching criteria we all use to judge reality. But unlike values, they’re more rooted in reality and not in the abstract. A principle could be, e.g. that murder is bad.

But let’s talk software. I seriously believe that there’s a serious lack of ethical considerations in software development nowadays. Silicon Valley Startup Culture has made us believe that rapid growth and eventual payday is the definition of success. And when it’s defined in such a narrow way, it closes the door on slow, methodical ethical considerations.

The “Because We Can” Business Model

Technology allows us to do way too many things. And legislation can’t keep up with the speed of technological advancement. This is where our moral principles are supposed to kick into gear, slowing our ambitions down. In tech, they would work in the way of asking ourselves some questions like:

  • Should we really save our users geolocation on our servers? ➡ No, you shouldn’t.
  • We can lose money for years on low prices to drive our competition out of business. Should we? ➡ No, you shouldn’t.
  • We can get more revenue by making the unchecked state ‘Pay for extra luggage’, should we? ➡ No, you shouldn’t.
  • If we hide the option we don’t like inside an unrelated menu, fewer people will find it, should we do it? ➡ No, you shouldn’t.

I can go on forever. Luckily, people are already doing that, so you can just find all kinds of dark patterns here.

Just because we can trick people into buying, doesn’t mean we should. Just because it’s technically legal to have small print and add charges at the very last checkout step, when the user is really invested in buying, doesn’t mean we should. You get the idea.

Be disruptive

Another problem with the current tech culture is the concept of disruption. We’ve come to understand disruption as breaking established markets up in a way that takes a lot of people out of business. Most of the time, it’s made to seem like the ones that go out of business are big corporations, so it’s fine, right? Only, that’s rarely the case. For every Blockbuster that Video Streaming took out, thousands of family-owned video rental chains died. Livelihoods were lost. Houses were sold. Lives were shattered. And we should keep that in mind when we’re trying to disrupt a market.

You could say something like “that’s the price of technological advancement” and I would agree with you. Up to a certain point. We need to be aware of that price beforehand because we’re not the ones paying it. At least acknowledge the pain our new shiny tech is going to cause before we build it. Maybe if we ask ourselves if we should, we find out that even though we can, we shouldn’t do it.

I’m afraid of rapid growth. I’m afraid of people forgetting their humanity in the name of innovation and tech. We’ve put so much power into the hands of anyone dedicated enough to learn how to wield it but we never stopped to think if everyone was ready to use it. Maybe we shouldn’t have done it so quickly. Even though we clearly could.

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