Social and Ethical Responsibilities

This morning I was attending Zeev Suraskis keynote at the International PHPConference in Mainz/Germany.

He spoke not so much about PHP or new technologies but what happens when technology fails. He gave us an insight into the things that happened around his last holiday in the south of Italy starting with a lost Internet-connection through a malfunctioning lens, a dead GPS-Display and his troubles getting mobile internet-access up to the dead fridge back home.

Besides the strange accumulation of bad luck it again showed me how much we depend on technology.

The last 20 years have seen a dramatic change in the lifestyle of our civilization. The internet has conquered domains no one would have dreamed of. Today it is totaly normal, that you not only buy your books online but also get recommendations from your bookstore. You can keep in touch with schoolmates around the globe and also become friends with people you have never seen from face to face. You can get your groceries without setting a foot outside your front door. And when you have a question, you not longer have to ask your parents or your teacher, and the answers you get are much more diverse than you dreamed of.

Actually the hard work is not longer getting the information but sift through the information that is readily available (well, at least if you are not looking for something about strange saints from westphalia).

Imagine a life without modern gadgets: We would have to ask people for the way to the next gas-station or buy our train-ticktes from real persons. Remember that embarasment when you went to the cashier to get some money you actually didn’t have? Cars would not go ‘beep’ on you for whatever reason there actually is (I am convinced that there actually is a ‘beep’ that signals, that there hasn’t been a ‘beep’ for the last five minutes) and when you drive too fast you can’t blame the car. We also had to plan in advance. No cell-phones to rearrange a long before scheduled meeting, no looking into your social network to see where the action will take place in five minutes.

That might sound like a miserable old crabber but thats not actually the point I am trying to make. I am happy with a lot of the above mentioned innovations. I am quite happy that I can find a train from here to there without sifting through thousands of pages with timetables in it (even though I still can if I want to). I love being able to call home from wherever I am to hear the voices of my loved ones. I am a male, so I simply got lost on my way to the next gas-station, that doesn’t happen any more.

But what about the cashier of my bank, that is not needed any more, because there is a cash machine? What about the book-seller that exacly knew what I should read next? What about that lady at the ticket-counter? What happened to them?

And that is the point that I am actually concerned about.

Is there a social or ethical responsibility for a developer? Where does it start and where does it end?

In one of my first projects – I think it even was my first one – I was thinking of implementing a templating engine for letters so that geneticists would be able to click together letters with their diagnosis. It was a sophisticated piece of (mental) work back in 2000 but I didn’t implement it. Why? It would have been fun and it would have been so much easier for everyone. Especially for the two people who at that point in time wrote the letters from the dictating machines of the geneticists – and who would have been without work.

That was the first time I thought about the consequences of my profession (which then was only a hobby).

Is it justified to do everything that is technically possible? And if not so, where does it start and where does it end?

These are questions I have no absolute answer to. I don’t even think that there is such a thing as the one answer (except for 42 of course). The answer to these questions has to be found by oneself. And once found it has to be verified all the time again.

But perhaps there are guidelines to help finding the answers. And if there are no guidelines then we all have to ask ourself why there aren’t any and whether we should start setting them up.

I for myself would like to do so, so lets get startet.