As a software engineering student at MSOE, I was informed that I’d have to take two soft courses with the word “Ethics” in the title, and that they were both required for graduation: HU432: Engineering Ethics, and CS409: Ethical and Professional Issues in Computing. Sadly, the latter is no longer taught at MSOE.
While Engineering Ethics was more broad and applied to both managers and engineers in all fields, Computing Ethics (as it was called by the students) covered specific topics of ethics as applied to the world of software and computing (along the lines of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil”).
At first, everyone hated the course. Many still hated it by the end of the course, mostly due to all the writing we had to do, combined with the fairly strict nature of the professor, Dr. Thomas; no one wanted to be writing papers about software, everyone just wanted to be writing software, and we were busy with Senior Design projects we’d just started. We were kids; we knew that privacy and security were issues, but at the time, we (or at least I) figured that these were things that wouldn’t really affect me until I graduated and got to write code for some company. Plus, I knew to consider stuff like safety, privacy, and intellectual property; I’ve read a lot about them on blogs, online articles, and through my old IEEE student membership.
Looking back, this single course had a lot of impact on who I was as a software engineer, both in my professional code of ethics (which can be summed up as “be smart, be considerate”) and in my interests in writing about technology and software (which led to countless Stack Overflow chatroom discussions, conversations about software development, and eventually, this blog).
Now, I took this course in the Fall trimester of 2012. Consider, if you will, everything that was happening around then in the world of computing (here’s an incomplete list, based partially on this PCWorld article):
- Apple and Samsung were embroiled in a bitter legal debate, part of a larger phenomenon nicknamed “The Smartphone Patent Wars“. 2012 saw a landmark case between Apple and Samsung, rewarding Apple the spoils in excess of a billion dollars. However, Apple also was denied a permanent injunction preventing the sale of Samsung’s products in question, and the courts shot down a flimsy Apple patent that somehow got approval.
- Megaupload, the file-sharing website run by eccentric millionaire Kim Dotcom, got shut down by the FBI in an (illegal) international sting, and Anonymous responded by DOSing the Department of Justice, the RIAA, and many others.
- The debate over SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and its sister bill PIPA, was raging, one side saying that piracy was a serious crime and needs to be punished, and the other side saying that the bills were both impractical to enforce and could be damaging to innovation, freedom of speech, and economic growth.
- Facebook went public, amidst technical difficulties, privacy concerns, and the acquisition of Instagram for $1 billion (and subsequent controversial changes to its privacy settings).
- Apple Maps replaced Google Maps on iOS devices, and it sucked. Three months later, it too was replaced… by Google Maps.
- Kickstarter (and crowdfunding in general) made it big, with the high-profile fundings of Double Fine Adventure, Project Eternity, Ouya (itself a good example of how to horribly misuse a ton of money), and the Pebble E-Paper Watch.
- Twitter broke more records, signed the Pope, and massively changed their API, introducing multimedia “cards” to tweets, and effectively locking out a ton of third-party clients from accessing the site. Also, Instagram, after being bought by Facebook, shut off integration with Twitter.
- Yahoo! finally got a decent CEO in the form of Marissa Mayer (ex-Google executive), who promptly made the company a little more like Google, and led to the later overhauls of the Flickr app and Yahoo Mail.
- Cloud computing was gaining traction, and the ethical impact of the cloud was being studied (at least by bloggers).
- Amid the monumental and controversial growth of WikiLeaks (which published the Syria Files and the Detainee Policies in July and October of that year) the SEC received over 3000 whistleblower tips in a single year, leading up to the November enactment of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012. (For reference: This was only seven months before Edward Snowden rocked the world by leaking vast quantities of classified NSA documents to the press in May 2013.)
All in all, I think 2012 served as the point of singularity between a world where ethics of technology was the domain of geeks, science-fiction writers, and large corporations, and a world where everyone was becoming privy to the ethical issues surrounding technology, devices, the Internet, and intellectual property. It may not have been the end of the world, but it was, in some ways, the end of one era, and the beginning of another. It was a good time to be involved in computing, for sure.
Where am I going with all of this? Well, what I’m trying to say is, software development is inextricably linked to ethics and social issues; not just work ethic and doing the right thing, but being considerate of how your work is affecting society in general, and how that may differ from the needs and desires of certain groups or individuals involved with your work. Trying to make or maintain software, or work with technology in general, involves taking into account the myriad ways in which what you make or work with could impede on others’ rights or be seen as unethical. Being aware of these events and the state of computing ethics is not just important, it’s vital to the understanding required when creating software or working with technology.
It’s a shame that the class isn’t offered anymore at MSOE; considering how useful it turned out to be, I’m surprised that no one sought to bring it back.