Big things in small boxes

Two justifications I’ve seen for dismissing the relevance of computer ethics in decision making:

  • this decision is harmless,
  • this is a business decision not a technology one

Computer Ethics and Professional Responsibility
I’m reading a great collection called Computer Ethics and Professional Responsibility. In the essay Unique Ethical Problems in Information Technology Walter Maner writes:

In the discreet world of computing, there is no meaningful metric in which small change and small effects go hand in hand.” – (Dijkstra 1989. p. 1400) … the normally predictable linkage between acts and their effects is severely skewed by the infusion of computing technology.

This disconnect around human perception, size and complexity reminded me of John Maeda’s Laws of Simplicity:

Thus while [integrated circuits] are a primary driver of complexity in modern day objects, they also enable the ability to shrink a frighteningly complex machine to the size of a cute little gum-drop… There is no turning back to the age when large objects were complex and small objects were simple.

So in hard and soft technology, size is no longer a predictable measure of consequence. Small contains great expressive power.

From Bill Joy’s 2000 wired article on the threat of miniaturization, ubiquity and self-learning systems, Why the future doesn’t need us:

The cause of many such surprises seems clear: The systems involved are complex, involving interaction among and feedback between many parts. Any changes to such a system will cascade in ways that are difficult to predict; this is especially true when human actions are involved.

Not only small tools but mundane and seemingly insignificant decisions about their use can have tremendous consequences.

Should we limit our concern for consequence to harm: injury, economic loss and the like?

To think so would be to absolve most technologists of ethical considerations most of the time. But an ethical view point doesn’t limit itself to harm but considers net benefit. So this isn’t just a discussion of quality control, it’s one of maximizing value and not just to our employers, clients and ourselves but with consideration for all those who are affected by the use of our products.

But is good ethics good business?

If “good business” is maximizing return over a fixed period then that clearly is not the same as maximizing benefit to the larger society. Most would argue that there are meaningful considerations besides acquiring wealth for both an individual and an organization but I’ll leave that for now. Let me concede that in business there are winners and losers and that winners often gain at the expense of those around them.

Nonetheless, what Walter Maner, John Maeda and Bill Joy are telling us is that in a way unique to this time in history we cannot deem a thing or a thought innocuous because it is small.

To borrow from an ex-Secretary of Defense, our work is fraught with far more “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” and far less “known knowns” than our ape-evolved brains would have us believe.

Even out of narrow self interest we must approach decision making around technology with humility and not skip the hard work of thinking through the consequences of our actions.

  • this decision is harmless
  • this is a business decision not a technology one

Embrace such thoughts at your peril for you deny complexity that both envelops you and fits on the tip of your finger.