What Are We Doing Here?

Dec 24, 2018

[T]hough it is worthwhile to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation […].

– Aristotle1

The first program written for a computer ran June 21, 1948 on the Manchester Mark 12. That means programmers have been cursing at compilers, pulling all-night debugging sessions, and arguing about curly braces for seven decades.

Why do we do it? Aside from the joy of creation, what is the point of the work?

There are as many answers to that question as there are people who ask. However, one answer can elevate our profession and give each of us an added purpose: We exist to serve the common good.

As technology becomes inseparable from human life, we, the builders of this technology, should view our work in this light. Doing so involves more than interpretation; “serving” implies action. But what kind of action?

A Code would help by spelling out exactly what kind of actions we think serve the common good – and which don’t. We can agree on a Code and hold each other accountable to it.

Before deciding on a Code, however, we must first explore competing interpretations of our work, define “the common good,” and identify exactly how our activities as engineers intersect with this concept.

What We’re Up Against

That the ultimate purpose of software engineering is to serve the common good is an uncommon idea in our profession, where suggestions about the purpose of our work come frequently from other people.

Venture capitalists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs portray software engineering as a means to generate wealth3, perhaps by “changing the world” along the way. Businesses and non-profits that hire us want us to take their brands and missions as our own. Meanwhile, from the perspective of the companies selling us products and services, our choices about what to consume contain the meaning of our work, not our acts of production.

(Let’s not even get into the media coverage of our profession, from which in 2018 a reasonable person might guess that our principle goal is to build artificial intelligence to replace every job on earth4.)

There’s nothing wrong with working for someone or founding a startup, and living usually entails buying things. The problem is that we often conflate the purpose of our work with these transactions.

Is the final meaning of a nurse’s work that he saves the hospital money? A firefighter’s that she protects insurance companies?

To Protect and Serve

The missions of the organizations for whom we practice our art, the desire of our investors for a return on their investments, and our private professional goals are all dimensions of our work, but none are the highest purpose of the work. That is to serve the common good. Some of us might go even further. Like the Los Angeles Police Department, we might protect and serve.

Which would you rather do, grind at a startup or protect and serve the common good? What if you could do both?

To find out how, we will explore what “serving the common good” might look like for software engineers.

What Is the Common Good?

But wait! Before we get into how software engineers can serve the “common good,” we have to define the phrase.

There are technical and non-technical definitions of “public” and “common” goods, especially when used in economics. The common good in this essay refers to something else.

Here, we do not mean public goods that a society collectively maintains, such as roads and other infrastructure. Some programs are so crucial to modern society that we may soon think of them this way, and maybe we ought to; parts of the internet come to mind. However, by claiming that software engineers ought to serve the common good, this essay does not mean that we should all direct our energy toward building public goods.

Instead, a philosophical definition of the common good is more useful to us. Seen this way, it is a tool we can use when deliberating about how to act.

To that end, let us say that the common good is the set of interests and facilities that members of a society agree are important and should be available to all members of the society. Note that the concept includes both “interests” and “facilities.”

Conflicts of Interest

One example of the common good in action is a public library. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy details this example well5. A shared interest of the common good might be that everyone in a society has access to all human knowledge. The facility serving that interest might be the library itself.

However, despite a society agreeing to provide access to the public library, the ability of anyone in the society to learn anything from the library may conflict with the private interest of other citizens. In the Stanford example, a baker might wish to monopolize his knowledge of certain kinds of baking; that is not possible if anyone can learn anything at the library.

This example was designed to illustrate the difference between public and common goods in economic theory. For our purposes it demonstrates that the common good often modulates private interests. That is precisely how we should think of it as software engineers, as we so often are employed to satisfy private interests.

The Intersection of Software Engineering and the Common Good

If the common good is the set of interests and facilities that a society thinks are important and should be accessible to all members, then we can look in two places to understand what, exactly, we should do to serve the common good.

The first place we should look is laws and extrajudicial mandates. In a democratic society, laws are usually created in response to modern political thinking about shared interests and facilities.

The second place we should look is in ourselves. What interests do we think are important, to what facilities do we think everyone should have access? A society is just a group of individuals, after all.

Laws often describe exactly where some domains intersect with the common good. However, in the U.S., that is only partially the case for software engineering.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) enforces controls to protect the privacy and security of certain health information6. However, HIPAA only covers medical information – and a subset of that.

Credit card companies mandate following the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) if a business processes credit card transactions. That means any system we build that does so must be PCI compliant, or credit card companies will fine the owners of these systems.

State laws muddy the picture as well. Across the U.S., several laws and business codes exist to protect consumer privacy7. But there is no unifying federal framework that specifies the general contract between software engineers and the common good, in law or otherwise.

General Intersections with the Common Good

Because there is no federal or practical framework that specifies how software engineering in general intersects with the common good, we need to identify the intersections ourselves.

There are four areas of our domain that appear to intersect most with the common good, at least in the U.S. There may be more, but these are sufficient to deliberate over a wide variety of situations.

In all these areas, there is a principle at work that we can derive by imagining negative consequences happening to ourselves rather than others, similar to the “veil of ignorance” thought experiment proposed by John Rawls8.

Privacy

Our software should safeguard the privacy of the people who use it by retaining as little information about them as possible, explaining what we keep and what we do with it, and giving users the ability to delete this information.

Principle: Information about us can be dangerous, so we should keep as little of that information about others as possible.

Security

We should design our systems with security adequate to protect the people who use it from theft and attack.

Principle: When we entrust our data to a private system, its operators have a relational obligation to us to protect that data.

The Environment

We should do as much as possible with as few of the earth’s resources as we can. We should avoid polluting the environment.

Principle: Because we all depend on the earth, we share a responsibility to protect it.

Public Health

We should not build software that harms the mental or physical health of people by design – unless we do so to defend the constitutional order.

We should undertake or fund research to determine the unintentional impacts that our systems have on the mental and physical health of people. Examples of negative impacts include blue light affecting sleep patterns, phone use causing vehicular death, and “dark design patterns” that produce addictive behavior in users.

Principle: Our lives depend on the health of our minds and bodies, so we should make the health of others our highest priority.

How Can You Serve the Common Good?

If you want to make serving the common good your first priority as a software engineer, you should know and abide by the federal and state laws and extrajudicial rules that affect your work.

But you also should become comfortable with applying a general framework like the one proposed in this essay. Applying such a framework would probably mean asking questions like the following:

  • Is this interaction pattern designed to create addictive behavior in children?
  • Is there another infrastructure provider that offers the same service while producing less pollution or using less non-renewable energy?
  • Must we link the reading behavior of a user to personally identifiable information about them in order to build this feature?
  • Is storing data about people on a hard disk without disk encryption secure enough to keep people safe?
  • Have we built a login system that protects the safety of our users if we do not require two-factor authentication?

The Code

There must be a reason that Americans consider nurses the most ethical profession in the United States9. Gallup didn’t ask what it is, so we can’t know for sure. Still, if we examine the way that nurses work, we might glean some insights.

You might ask yourself if you think a nurse would prioritize the health and safety of a patient over a hospital’s finances. Given the high degree of public trust in nurses, who beat out doctors and police officers, my suspicion is that most Americans think nurses would prioritize patient health above everything else.

That might be because Provisions 1-3 of the Code of Ethics for Nurses are about recognizing the inherent dignity in all people, the primacy of the nurse’s commitment to the patient, and the responsibility for nurses to advocate for patients10.

Software engineers ought to have such a Code, and it should express our expectations for conduct in the areas of our profession that intersect with the common good.

There are at least two Codes that some software engineers already follow. These are the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct11, which is designed for all computing professionals and is also the most up to date, and the ACM Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice12.

These Codes outline standards of behavior. They also both start with our commitment to something greater than money or employers: the common good.

Forward

As our work becomes ever more entwined with human life, we must serve the common good first.

Each of us can step forward into a future in which software engineers are trusted servants and protectors of humanity. That first step might be to swear by a Code that places the common good above all else. For me, it is.

References

  1. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.1.i.html 

  2. Mike Hally (2005). Electronic brains: stories from the dawn of the computer age. National Academies Press. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-309-09630-0. 

  3. http://www.paulgraham.com/wealth.html 

  4. https://www.economist.com/special-report/2016/06/25/automation-and-anxiety 

  5. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/common-good/ 

  6. https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/security/laws-regulations/index.html 

  7. http://www.ncsl.org/research/telecommunications-and-information-technology/state-laws-related-to-internet-privacy.aspx 

  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veil_of_ignorance 

  9. https://news.gallup.com/poll/224639/nurses-keep-healthy-lead-honest-ethical-profession.aspx 

  10. https://www.nursingworld.org/coe-view-only 

  11. https://www.acm.org/code-of-ethics 

  12. https://ethics.acm.org/code-of-ethics/software-engineering-code/