December 15, 2016 18:56 +0000  |  Engineering Ethics 5

Something amazing is happening in my industry right now and I want to take a minute to talk about it.

Americans are freaking out. They're staring down the barrel of the very real possibility that the Trump administration will draw up lists of Muslims living the United States. This is a dangerous first step toward dictatorship and the end of rule of law, and those of us paying attention are understandably worried.

The American engineering community is slowly arriving at a state of self consciousness though: a few of them have banded together and written a pledge stating in short, that if the US government wants to build technology to destroy the country, then they're going to have to find someone else to do it:

We, the undersigned, are employees of tech organizations and companies based in the United States. We are engineers, designers, business executives, and others whose jobs include managing or processing data about people. We are choosing to stand in solidarity with Muslim Americans, immigrants, and all people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the incoming administration’s proposed data collection policies. We refuse to build a database of people based on their Constitutionally-protected religious beliefs. We refuse to facilitate mass deportations of people the government believes to be undesirable.

We have educated ourselves on the history of threats like these, and on the roles that technology and technologists played in carrying them out. We see how IBM collaborated to digitize and streamline the Holocaust, contributing to the deaths of six million Jews and millions of others. We recall the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. We recognize that mass deportations precipitated the very atrocity the word genocide was created to describe: the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey. We acknowledge that genocides are not merely a relic of the distant past—among others, Tutsi Rwandans and Bosnian Muslims have been victims in our lifetimes.

Today we stand together to say: not on our watch, and never again.

And they didn't stop there. They've done what engineers do best, they built something: a platform to allow other people to add their names. The list currently stands at 1239 people with new pull requests (the process by which people request to be added) happening so fast that they literally have had problems keeping up.

What's more, the whole thing is being developed in the open and you can watch the process unfold. Just yesterday afternoon I was following this ticket where they were debating how to solve the onslaught of applicants and introduce some uniformity for scale. The software chosen was Free, Open, and conforming to a universal standard that's easy to follow.

What's exciting about this, for me at least, is that this could very well be the beginning of a Code of Ethics for software engineering: developed in the open by ourselves, in an effort to operate as a community for the greater good.

Ethics in engineering is nothing new of course. The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer has been a thing in Canada since 1922 in an effort to make sure that, in the interest of the Public Good, engineers who built bridges would adhere to ethics rather than employer directives.

Historically however, software engineering has been a Wild West of people doing whatever they want, with zero focus on the ethics of what we're doing. It's my hope that if anything comes out of a Trump presidency, a sense of responsibility for our actions should be it.

There's a lot of potential here. In an ideal world, I'd like to see companies and Free software projects adopting a policy of only collaborating with engineers who have signed the pledge: a simple declaration that we are thinking people with moral compasses who are responsible for our actions. In much the same way that companies, conferences, and projects have codes of conduct, I think it's time that we acknowledge that ethics should be an integral part of what we do.

This is just one project though, and a rather US-centric one at that, so I'm not sure it has the legs required to get us to where I think we need to be, but it's a start, and I'm absolutely thrilled that we're finally having this conversation.

November 22, 2009 22:30 +0000  |  Capitalism Ethics 0

I've been thinking about my own views on capitalism lately. It makes sense, I suppose when you consider that I'm co-founding a for-profit company with an intent to build something so useful that my shares in it would be worth a great deal of money. Add to that the fact that I've been re-negotiating my employment contract with Work [at] Play so that I might better apply my time & energy to this new venture and how I view capitalism becomes pretty important.

Basically, I see my role in a capitalist system as one of maintaining fairness for those involved. In other words, I don't want to make millions of dollars (honestly, what would I do with it?) Rather, I just want to be sure that the profits generated from my work aren't being disproportionately distributed.

To me, any capitalist model should be founded on the understanding that all parties involved stand to profit from their work equally based on the risk endured and the effort applied. In an employer-employee situation, wages are more than the trading of time for money (though they're that too). Wages are also a statement that the employer acknowledges that they wouldn't have a company without the employee and that in recognition of this fact, a reasonable portion of the profits are allocated to them.

I think that a lot of people share my views on this, but don't realise it. They're bitter that person X is paid more or less than person Y but can't explain why. In a co-venture, a lack of understanding can kill the partnership, so knowing the motivation behind those involved is always a good idea. My partner and I are on the same page on this, and I honestly think that it relieves a lot of potential tension.

On a related note, I found this link today that I thought I'd share. It's loosely related, titled "How to Fix Capitalism".

May 30, 2006 15:54 +0000  |  Capitalism Ethics 0

So what do you do when you're a multi-million dollar company stuck with product you know to be contaminated with HIV? Well the most logical thing of course: pack it up and ship it off to Europe where you know it will kill thousands, even millions.

But big companies can be trusted, oh yes. They do, after all, "have a brand to protect".

Thanks to Laura who found the above link as well as the corroborating story.