Ethicks & Informatics

I gave a talk on Ethics and Informatics at the CeDoSIA Summer get together on July 31st 2008. It was introduced as follows:

In the 70-ies, some skeptics warned that wide-spread use of computers would make Orwell’s vision come true. Now we have reached the turning point from the auto-mobile to the i-mobile era. IT and computer science have become the dominant social influences. Our future will depend on whether the architects of the new era – the computer scientists – can practice ethical behavior

My talk continued as follows!

Let me start with words by Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher, mathematician and logician:

All growth in technology,

if it is to increase human happiness,

requires a corresponding increase in wisdom!

I first heard this beautiful quotation at a talk by Prof. Dr. Christoph Wamser of the Institute for Management and Technology at DGMF. I am pleased to repeat them. Bertrand Russell was one of our idols in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

1. Ethics: Ethics needs no definition. It stands by itself. We can all judge whether an action is ethical or unethical. Everybody knows that ethics has a subjective component: and an objective one. The application and quality of ethics may differ, but they all have a common denominator, for instance the one written down in the UN charter. Among Churches, there are also common elements, such as the biophilie principle (don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you,and help life to flourish in all its dimensions).

2. Informatics: The term “informatics” was first introduced by a group of IT-pioneers around Professor F. L. Bauer. It is a catchy word, probably an acronym for information technology. Informatics includes all technologies involved with exchange, distribution and processing of information and knowledge. The printing press is an early stage of informatics, which changed the world fundamentally, as did later radio and television. Mathematical tables, mechanical calculators and the slide rule belong to the early days of informatics. The mobile era is in decline, and informatics compensates for this deficit. I might have said “informatics replaces mobilatics” if the pioneers of cars and railway had sought an acronym for “mobile technology”. Informatics will play a role in society over the next hundred years which will equal the one mobile technology has played for the last 200 years. As important as mobility and information networking were the invention of agriculture, the use of fire in ovens and motors (steam engine), the discovery of time and the construction of time measuring machines (clocks), maybe also parts of medical science.

3. The social impact of informatics: Here some examples of the impact of informatics these days:

o The incredibly fast ascent of information technology companies, such as Google, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, EBay and many more.

o The success of managerial principles that originally sounded utopian, such as Open Source as seen in Linux and the LAMP world or MySQL

o Totally innovative, collaborative work models which, for example, make the physical presence of a person working on a project unnecessary.

o The success of IT projects and development of relevant software systems significantly more complex than, for example, the development of a car.

o New methods in software development (Scrum), organizational and quality control projects.

o The social change caused by the use of internet. An example: in former times, the majority of married couples first met in a train, today they first meet in internet

o The radical structural changes in business caused by WEB2.

4. Early discussions (I): At InterFace we started discussing “Questions of ethics” shortly after the company was founded in 1984. One of our employees was a young post-doc who, by the way, today teaches mathematics at a university. Let’s call her Gabi. Like many people in those days, Gabi favoured alternative forms of living and therefore had chosen to live in a “rural community” in the northern suburbs of Munich. As Gabi quickly climbed the ladder of success at InterFace, her reputation inside the rural community waned accordingly. The other occupants of her community were convinced that computers would eventually make the Orwellian utopia of an inhuman surveillance society come true. Even in those days, we at InterFace had declared that we aimed at introducing IT supported processes, for instance for public administration services. Naturally, what Gabi’s friends said was that it was definitely unethical to work in this kind of company. For Gabi, who is highly idealistic, the permanent accusation she was subjected to by her peers was a huge problem – which is how a serious discussion about ethics was initiated in a medium-size company with friendly structures. Gabi’s decision to eventually aspire to a mathematical career at university level might have been partly motivated by this being a less sensitive arena.

5. Early discussions (II): Years later, the ethical discussion flamed up even more strongly in our company. Social development has meant that, in principle, individuals have delegated power of enforcement to the social system, i.e. the state. Of course, this never worked one hundred percent (there has always been individual abuse of power, like against women and children in the family, pub brawls, …) but on the whole, the state monopoly can be considered a great improvement. When we had just sold our product CLOU/HIT for the very fast and IT supported generation of documents for the administrative branch responsible for law and order (police, public prosecutors, law courts, prisons and re-socialization institutions), some of our employees drew the line. Especially when chances were good that the armed forces might be our next client, that was going too far. Should our product be sold to a military tribunal which comes up with unfair verdicts (the “Filbinger” affair was in everybody’s mind in those days)? After all, nobody would have wanted to work for a tobacco or munitions firm.

6. The ethical discussion exemplified thereby: Maybe we should revert to discussing such issues again. Considering that Germany is the world’s third biggest weapons exporter and has quadrupled sales to the poorest countries, a serious discussion might not be amiss. But what is a father of four supposed to do if he lives in an economically weak region and the weapons company is the only place where he is offered a job? I was personally very moved by the advert we all saw during the European Soccer Championships, where it said each goal pays for an artificial limb for a mine victim in Afghanistan. Are we trying to help the victims of products that we ourselves have made?

7. “Unethical” products and goals: IT products, too, can be “unethical”. Just think of software designed for espionage or supervision, or the RFID chip worn on overalls, or of mobile units with NFC (near field connection)! Orwell’s vision forces us to be very careful. The current discussion motivated by Google systematically filming three German cities is also an interesting aspect. Then there is the worry about IT companies being able to gain a world monopoly or exclusive knowledge about what goes on in the world because of the special characteristics of the medium “software” (Microsoft, Google). In former times, even outstanding companies had a harder time trying to dominate the market: Coca Cola always had competition from Pepsi Cola and lots of smaller drinks companies. Intel has AMD and other competitors, such as manufacturers of graphics processors. But where would Microsoft be without competition from the Open Source Community?

8. Ethics inside the company: It is definitely helpful for an ethically intact company to be both client-friendly and socially useful. Certain products can give new meaning to a firm. Moreover, a company sounds more legitimate if what they produce is beneficial to the community. Young and critical employees tend to reject useless enterprises. For ethics, however, it is not good enough just to contemplate a company’s goals and purposes. Whether or not an enterprise is “ethically intact” also depends on how it functions socially, which is a multi-dimensional issue. Hard as it may be to imagine it, even making such despicable products as mines does not necessarily indicate that the company doing it is ethically malfunctioning.

9. Ethics and managers: Managers often forget that enterprises are social systems. Their character is closer to living beings than to deterministic machines. How do people working in a company treat each other? Are the bosses system agents who see their role as to manage fixed processes and reach given growth and result targets? Are the employees just means for an end? Are they, as a result of industrialization, reduced to being n-tupels (vectors) with technical knowledge and measurable performance levels (“red” for underperformers, “yellow” for medium and “green” for good). Is it all just about getting the right skill to the right place at the right time? Is that what we call dignity? Does the middle management (since summer 2008 called clay layer) keep the enterprise mentally mobile? A functional leadership style will reduce professional and social life in the firm. This will in the long run be detrimental to the enterprise, especially if it is an IT enterprise. Or are the bosses leaders who know well that humans are complex creatures with varied values, ambitions, interests and needs (mnemonic: VAIN)? (Translators comment: the original German mnemonic was WEIB, i.e. “WOMAN”). Do they see themselves as multipliers whose task it is to enhance professionalism and social life? Are they good listeners, are they not self-centred in their way of thinking? Do they understand the difference between a group and a team? Can they understand that “correctly” utilized employees are enormously valuable? Have they learned that the term “achievement” is hard to define and that “benchmarking” only gives a (mistaken) feeling of security? How do the acolytes of this system treat partners, delivery services and clients?

10. Ethical behaviour: It is not possible to develop ethical theories and then learn the technique in order to practice them. Ethical behavior has to be practiced in everyday life. In order to do so, we must fall back on old wisdom: There was a time when we were good listeners. We must re-activate the skill of observation. If we managers act consciously ethically on a daily basis, then the necessary purpose for our enterprise will develop alongside other success. Chances are that an enterprise with this kind of leadership will produce things that are really useful for the clients.

11. Vision: Teams work on tasks. The opponent is a given problem, not the people involved in the project. They focus on the challenge of the task in order to achieve their goal. Systematic and administrative problems are quickly solved. Rules that make sense are adhered to because that is the sensible thing to do. Each member of a team chooses and carries out his or her own task in collaboration with the team.

– Everybody does what he or she is best at.

– If somebody is interested in it, he or she can learn something new.

– Motivation is intrinsic.

– All developers are also users.

– Everybody in the team makes the experience that the product is useful.

– The organization is clear and simple.

– Work on a project follows simple rules.

– The goals are transparent.

– Everybody gets their fair share of the success.

12. Atmosphere of mutual trust: Can’t we be professionally present and achieving in our projects, even when we are not physically present? Everybody in the team works with a shared trust that all are working with the same motivation and reliability. If this kind of trust is nurtured on a daily basis, then we will finally have a culture of trust. Many Open Source projects have such a trust culture, which is why they are so successful. The above vision has become reality in the Open Source world. The currently very popular “SCRUM” method is based on a trust culture. The RFID chip in the work overalls is not!

13. NGO’s: New political and social powers are becoming effective. NGO’s (Non Government Organisations) such as Greenpeace, AI, Attac … are increasingly important in society and politics. In third-world countries, they often help the people more than national governments, and so are more highly regarded. To be successful, they must distance themselves from politics and business. The big Open Source products were or are a lot like NGO’s. What would our world be without the big Open Source initiatives? Perhaps clubs like the CCC (Chaos Computer Club) will be the next important NGO’s of the informatics age.

14. Time transition: Can we learn from past mistakes? The invention of cars was a catastrophe. Never before did we sacrifice so much environment for a technology. The carnage was and is high. In Germany alone, more than 5,000 people die each year, because of the “automobile” society. That is a higher death rate than the German army had during the first year of WorldWar2. In the five years between the beginning of the Iraq war and July 2008, the US army had “only” 4,000 casualties. A decade ago, there were 10,000 or more traffic fatalities in Germany annually. Shouldn’t the responsible developers have done something about this much sooner? How can we computer scientists, with wisdom and ethical behaviour, avoid similarly grave mistakes? I am worried about more than just the virtual gated communities.

15. Gated community: The term was originally one with positive connotations in the USA: A (better) living area had gates for protection. Access is centralized and controlled. Within the gates, the desired security is achieved. That is not a bad idea in a country where everybody is permitted to carry weapons and 30,000 people die each year from gunshots. But is this the kind of society we want? I am opposed to gated communities. From childhood on, in our best interest, our freedom is restricted in kindergartens. Schools are increasingly gated and controlled, as is the University of our armed forces. The townships in South Africa and West Berlin were also gated communities. Even if this was an advantage for some, it is certainly not a nice state of affairs. When I first worked for Siemens AG, my office was situated at Hofmannstr., which was definitely a gated community. Siemens Neuperlach symbolized vision and hope: here, they wanted to create a research park without gates and – American fashion – with kindergarten, shops, cafes and restaurants. Unfortunately, probably due to the murder of Siemens research manager Kurt Beckurtz, even in those days, the fear of terror prevailed. This is how another gated community became reality – in my personal opinion to the detriment of all of us. In the new IT world we are threatened by virtual “gated communities”. Totalitarian states control their people’s access to the internet according to their political system. Private enterprises create fences in their software in order to keep out the competition. Others develop knowledge monopolies. Administrative organs of democratic countries are prepared to use electronic espionage, and even support anonymous denunciation via internet, thereby creating the transparent citizen and building fences of fear and distrust. Companies believe in security to the point of IT overkill and private citizens lock their WLAN for fear of hackers. All our waking hours are filled with paranoid fears while we forget the real risks we are confronted with each day as natural, biological humans and part of a complex, society. We computer scientist really do have a huge task ahead and are obliged to practice ethics!

16. Appeal: There is a program called “Musik und Politik” (music and politics) on the Bavarian radio. Musicians play jazz for democracy. My vision would be “computer scientists for democracy”. Musicians are artists, they are into emotions. They are very often “free people”. More often than not – maybe sometimes out of necessity – they manage to live their lives in self-determination. My dream is engineers for democracy. Universal freedom is a high value – it is the basis for ethical behaviour. What I do not want is computer scientists who are happy but not free, because “The greatest enemies of freedom are happy slaves”. So, please, be free spirits and not happy slaves!

(Translated by EG)

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