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Ethics Are Missing From Software Development

kiraemclean profile image Kira McLean ・2 min read

There is something conspicuously missing from software development education. As developers, we learn all about how to write, organize, design, share, use, and test software, but the discussion of how that software will actually be used and what it's impact on the world will be is usually an afterthought.

What discussions do happen tend to be around licensing and intellectual property, with the main focus on not getting sued. That stuff matters, but it doesn't come close to addressing and grappling with the total impact of the tech industry.

The effects of software on the world are enormous. It affects the way we do everything and shows up in every corner of our lives:

  • how we keep in touch with friends and family
  • how we get around
  • how we work
  • how we learn about the world and make decisions
  • how we grow up
  • how we affect the planet

Preventing our software from making the world worse should be at the top of our minds as technologists, but it's almost always on the backburner. There's a huge disconnect between writing some characters on a computer and seeing effects in the real world.

I'm worried that's a really big problem, though. I really don't think it's an exaggeration to say that some of the most dire problems we need to collectively deal with in my lifetime are caused or exacerbated by software.

Things like the environmental crisis. Bitcoin bullshit already consumes more resources than many countries. Or the mental health crisis. There's good evidence that suggests the internet makes us meaner, angrier, and sadder than ever. Or the erosion of democracy worldwide. There's no doubt that social media is responsible for flooding our information ecosystem with disinformation, which spreads like cancer through our networks and leads us to making irrational decisions that can have deleterious long term effects.

I'm not advocating for every software engineer to become an ethicist, but we can do a lot better at being aware of the impact our work has on the world. It's definitely not nothing, and sometimes it's everything.

Discussion (2)

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dastasoft profile image
dastasoft

Totally agree with that, back in college I remember having some computer oriented ethics classes, but yes it was a minimal % of the entire degree.

Software today has a huge impact on the world and software will continue to define our lives and interactions.

Perhaps we lack a specific role in our teams that is responsible for advocating ethical practices among the team.

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nicozerpa profile image
Nico Zerpa (he/him)

100% Agree. Software has a gigantic impact on the world and desperately need an ethics framework. Or at the very least, we devs should be aware of how our work affects the world we live in.

A thing that makes software special is that it can interact with literally any other discipline or industry. Finance, manufacturing, education, farming, entertainment, healthcare... you name it!

That's why I think the discussion around ethics and software should also include how to have meaningful with those other disciplines and their ethics frameworks too.