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About Computer Science and Responsibility March 31, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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Are we prepared to take on the responsibility of the consequences of our code?  That is clearly a loaded question.  Both individual programmers and their employers use all manner of code to gain a personal, financial, business, or wartime advantage.  I once had a programmer explain to me, “They tell me to build this menu, I build the menu.  They tell me to create these options, I create these options.  There is no thought involved.”

In one sense, yes.  By the time the project reaches the coder, there is usually little in doubt.  But while we are not the masterminds, we are the enablers.

I am not sure that all software programmers viewed their work abstractly, without acknowledging potential consequences.  Back in the 1980s, I knew many programmers who declined to work for the burgeoning defense industry in Massachusetts of the day, convinced that their code might be responsible for war and violent death (despite the state’s cultural, well, ambivalence to its defense industry to begin with).

Others are troubled by providing inaccurate information being used to make decisions, or by trying to manipulate people’s emotions to feel a particular way, to buy a particular product or service.  But that seems much less damaging or harmful than enabling the launch of a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile.

Or is it?  I am pretty sure that most who work for Facebook successfully do abstract their code from the results.  How else can you explain the company’s disregard of personal reaction to their extreme intrusion into the lives of their users?  I think that might have relatively little to do with their value systems, and more to do with the culture in which they work.

To be fair, this is not about Facebook, although I could not resist the dig.  Rather, this is to point out that the implementers, yes, the enablers, tend to be divorced from the decisions and the consequences.  To be specific:  Us.

Is this a problem?  After all, those who are making the decisions are better qualified to do so, and are paid to do so, usually better than the programmers.  Shouldn’t they be the ones taking the responsibility?

Ah, but they can use the same argument in response.  They are not the ones actually creating these systems; they are not implementing the actual weapons of harm.

Here is the point.  With military systems, we are well aware that we are enabling war to be fought, the killing of people and the destruction of property.  We can rationalize by saying that we are creating defensive systems, but we have still made a conscious choice here.

With social systems, we seem to care much less that we are potentially causing harm than in war systems.  In fact, the likes of Mark Zuckerberg still continue to insist that his creation is used only for good.  That is, of course, less and less believable as time marches on.

And to be clear, I am not a pacifist.  I served in the military in my youth.  I believe that the course of human history has largely been defined by war.  And that war is the inevitable result of human needs, for security, for sustenance, or for some other need.  It is likely that humanity in general will never grow out of the need to physically dominate others (case in point, Harvey Weinstein).

But as we continue to create software systems to manipulate people, and to do things that make them do what they would not otherwise do, is this really ethically different than creating a military system?  We may be able to rationalize it on some level, but in fact we also have to acknowledge that we are doing harm to people.

So if you are a programmer, can you with this understanding and in good conscience say that you are a force for good in the world?

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