Do computer professionals need a code of ethics? As the computing industry grows, argue two experts on the social aspects of computing, so do the many ethical dilemmas facing people who create, design and sell software and hardware. I'll second that idea: computing is getting some of the worst publicity around, and more and more of it is deserved. This is the second in a series of essays based on "Technology and the Future," edited by Albert Teich and published by Bedford/St.Martin's.
Computers may have ushered in a social and economic revolution, but they don't necessarily signify an advance in the world's ethical life.
Stealing other people's work is almost a hobby on the Net, where copying isn't seen as a crime, but as an inalienable right. Geeks and nerds routinely brag about their software snatches, purloined gaming and music libraries and free upgrades.
Programmers frequently come up with products that are buggy, excessive, unworkable, unsupportable or overpriced. The industry's consumers are exploited and abused.
Online, cruelty and hostility are points of pride, civility and respect rare virtues.
While people all over the world have been quick to embrace computing, they've been slower to consider its moral implications. The explosion of computer technology, its sudden rise, and its susceptibility to misuse and malfunction have raised a slew of unresolved ethical, social and legal issues.
The Net's builders - engineers, nerds, academics and geeks of the 60s and 70s - talked a lot about freedom, accessibility, and openness; they believed in information as a tool for improving the human condition. They would be flabbergasted, three decades later, to learn that entertainment has become the Net's primary draw. According to Cyber Dialogue, more than 43 million users -70 per cent of all Americans online - were using the Web for sports, movies, TV, music or gaming.
As is often typical in visionary social movements, the real world tends to set in brutally. The leaders of today's computing industry today talk a lot more about bandwidth, hardware, and IPO's than about changing the world.
As for other leaders, Congress is much too busy exploiting political concerns about dirty pictures to focus on real moral problems - and by now, nobody would really want Congressional input into the life of the Net and the Web, anyway, especially when it comes to ethics.
So although there are scads of ethical people in the computing business and online - many engaged in downright noble endeavors - computing is still raw, wild, and ethically unformed. Along with the honorable values found online - freedom, sharing, creating - there are plenty of dark ones.
"Computer Ethics," by Tom Forester and Perry Morrison, is one of the most provocative essays in Albert Teich's collection of writings about issues raised by the spread of new technology. There could hardly be a more timely subject. There is nothing approaching a consensus on computing ethics, even as the number of Americans using the Internet rockets past the 100 million mark.
The ease with which even minimally-skilled Net users can copy software, for instance, presents millions of people with ethical dilemmas weekly. Ethicists have argued that copying software is blatant theft, yet the easy transmission of software also challenges long-held ideas about who can and should own information.
Is copying software wrong? Are some kinds of copying more ethical than others?
Hacking and cracking are defined differently all over the Net and Web; some see hacking as harmless fun while cracking is criminal, but an increasing number of people view both activities as equivalent to fraud or theft.
What about the behavior of computer users online? People can act arrogantly, even viciously, ignorantly asserting opinions and spreading misinformation, attacking different views, ridiculing the helpless, driving newcomers away. Websites routinely tolerate behavior that would be prohibited or curtailed in almost any other other context.
Within the computer industry itself, there are by- now- entrenched patterns of unethical corporate behavior. Few companies involved in the creation or maintenance of computers or programs take any real responsibility for what they sell or how it works. Accordingly, few Net users are without horror stories to tell about squandered money or malfunctioning equipment.
Computers are often badly - even unethically -- sold, with pricey and unnecessary equipment foisted on unknowing consumers; technical support remains a nightmare of near-extortionate "incident" plans and delays, with often poorly-trained, overwhelmed staff. In most companies, some of the most important employees, especially in terms of public perception - Help Desk geeks - have the lowest status and salaries.
Computer software is constructed to invade privacy, record personal tastes and habits, share unauthorized information, and market personal information in ever-widening circles and ways.
It's hard to think of any other business with so horrid a record of abusing its customers. Public disgust and resentment over the way computers are sold, and the way the machines work (or don't) help create a climate in which government regulation and intervention becomes more politically appealing. As computers become more central, they tend to be blamed for more and more problems - pornography, isolation, addiction, hate-mongering. Computers get an even worse PR rap these days than politicians.
Although much of this publicity is false or overblown, computing reinforces the disturbing notion that technology often rushes ahead of our ability to deal coherently - or ethically - with it. That in turn breeds mistrust and suspicion.
Who, exactly, bears responsibility for bugs? For system crashes? For the equitable distribution of technology?
The truth is, we have no idea. And it's all only going to get more ethically complicated.
Computer- driven studies in artificial intelligence and genomes have raised staggering question marks - some having to do with the nature of life itself - though they receive far less political or media attention than the occasional media-sensationalized computer virus.
Because computing is a relatively new field, Forester and Morrison write, the profession has lacked the time or organizational capacity to establish a set of moral rules or ethics the way more entrenched professions like medicine or law have. Computing and its many subsets - such as programming and software engineering - haven't yet emerged as a full-fledged profession. They also plead that computer educators teach ethics; that they make students aware of the social problems caused by computers and the kinds of moral choices programmers and designers will face at work.
"Computer professionals face all sorts of ethical dilemmas in their everyday work life," write Forester and Morrison. "First, although they have obligations to their employers, to the customers, to their co-professionals, and to the general public, these obligations often come into conflict."
How should a systems analyst respond if her employer insists on selling overengineered, unnecessarily expensive or otherwise inadequate systems to unknowing customers? Should computer professionals care when they see intellectual or property rights being infringed upon? How should a computer professional deal with the daily barrage of issues involving intellectual property?
Do non-professionals online have any ethical responsibilities at all? Movements like free software and Open Source advocate the sharing, distribution, use and re-use of software, a moral position in conflict with traditional notions of ownership. Yet online, it's almost a moral imperative to thwart corporate efforts to curb information, as when the WB network foolishly postponed the season finale of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in the post-Columbine hysteria and fans downloaded it all over the Net.
Technically, the "Buffy" fans were stealing the WB's property. Can't a network programming exec air what he or she has bought any time he or she pleases, for any reason at all? Yet in this case, the theft seemed more ethical than the hypocritical decision to postpone the broadcast.
Similiarly, the music industry is in near-meltdown over unpaid MP3 downloads and other forms of piracy. Yet the record companies - one of the world's larger cartels outside Colombia - were due some comeuppance for their arrogance, greed and control over music. In the age of the market-driven mega-corporation, it sometimes does seem more ethical to steal than to pay.
For now, online ethics remain personal and individualistic. Certain values predominate in some quarters - information-sharing, a common interest in protecting freedom, an increasingly rationalist approach to political and informational issues. But how to implement those values in any particular situation is left up to the individual, a hit-or-miss proposition in a culture with tens of millions of people and tens of thousands of newcomers every day.
Professional organizations like the ACM (Associatiion of Computing Machinery), the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), the British Computer Society (BCS) and IFIP (International Federation for Information Processing) have all worked to create codes of ethics and professional conduct. Few of these codes are widely known and embraced.
But there are broad ethical principles that many computer users and builders can rally around. Here's a few starters:
Opportunity. People who work in computers might work for the equitable distribution of technology, so that computer users don't become a powerful elite in control of a culture that excludes the technologically illiterate, a social nightmare already well underway.
- Responsibility. People who make technology need to consider its social implications, applications and consequences.
- Access. Unfettered access to the Internet, its information unrestricted and unregulated by corporations or government except in the most dire circumstances.
- Civics. Democracy and inclusion, using network computing to break down elites, to bring more people into the political process, provide them more information, and give them new ways to express their opinions and attitudes.
- Civility. Another ethical goal might be a civil society online - especially a new kind of media -- where information is gathered and shared openly, solutions are approached rationally rather than ideologically, facts replace confrontation and dogma, argument is encouraged but personal attacks viewed as the unethical assaults on the free movement of ideas that they are.
And where corporations, designers, programmers and engineers take responsibility for the things they make and the way they work and are used.
Next - Part Three: The Coming Of The Perfect Baby