Computing Ethics

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):

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.

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