Cláudio Ribeiro

@claudio.santos.ribeiro

Are software developers a force for good?

Not too long ago I watched this debate. In this particular debate, both parties debate whether Christianity is a force for good or not. 
And while this text has nothing to do with religion in general, it triggered me to something I’ve been thinking for some time now. I’ve been thinking about moral and ethics in the software development industry, more precisely, are software developers a force for good?

We are living in interesting times, times where algorithms are getting faster and more accurate at each day that passes. Times where processing power and data storing capability are virtually infinite.

We are also living in times where access to technology is cheaper than ever and growing every day.

With this in mind, it is important to ask the following question: what kind of software are we creating? What kind of products are we providing to our peers? Do we think about the dangers of our work?

Little disclaimer: I know that not all software is dangerous, in fact, most of it is not. A lot of the advances in science were only possible due to our work. A lot of good things happen everyday because of our work!

As a software developer myself, I very rarely thought about the implications and the moral and ethics associated to my work.

And this worries me. Because if we come to think about it, software is being used for pretty questionable and nasty things.

Take a quick look at online advertisement. Do you think it is a coincidence that almost every add we see is something that suites our needs? They know that you need new shoes and that you’re thinking about buying a new computer. They even know what kind of movies and books you enjoy the most. Definitely not a coincidence.

True story time. I’ve been searching for plane tickets to Marrakesh, because I’m thinking about visiting it. The moment I’ve opened Facebook, trips to Marrakesh are being advertised.

I spent some time trying to identify areas where software development is actually doing a disservice to society and I came with 3 major areas. I think those areas are some of the most dangerous, and deserve a good and deep look.

Weaponry

I think this one is quite obvious. Software facilitates and is present in most of modern warfare. Software is contributing to the development of newer and deadlier weapons. And let’s be honest, no matter what they say, nothing good comes from the use of weapons.

Privacy

Data is being collected each time we turn on our computer. Companies like Google and Facebook have huge databases of data about their users, they know everything, where you’ve been, what you like, who are your friends… Everything! Data is being passed around companies. And some of those companies don’t have the best intentions.

Not only this but operative systems have backdoors so that you can be spied on.

We, as developers of the software behind some of these systems are actively working on eradicating one of the pillars of modern society, Freedom.

Addiction

Addiction is very real. Nowadays, product success is being measured on the amount of people addicted to it. People get anxious when they can’t log in to their favorite site or social network. People feel their phones vibrating in their pockets, even when the phone is not there. It’s the first we do once we wake up, and the last before going to sleep. To be connected.

I know this, I’m on the same boat. One way or the other I’m also addicted to connectivity.

Businesses have entire teams studying how to get users addicted to their products, instant rewards, constant notifications, likes and thumbs up, it’s all documented.

Want to guess whose work is powering all this?

Summing it up

At first sight, software development may seem like a pretty innocuous occupation. We arrive in the morning, do some programming and leave. We are also pretty introverted people. What bad can we do?

But if we look at it closely, there’s a huge responsibility behind it. Maybe it’s time to look at what we do, and the impact it may have.

It is time to stop thinking about it as a merely technical position, and it’s time to look at it in a moral way, with a critical eye.

Do I think software developers are a force for good?

Definitely!

But there’s still a lot of work to do!

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