Technologists today wield a powerful tool. We are designing, prioritizing, and putting things out into the world, affecting people we have never met. We are on their wrists, in their laptops, in their pockets, and thus, in their heads. Sometimes the ethics are in clear black and white, but at other times it can be a bit more complicated.
I was lucky to be in the audience to witness Alan Cooper’s recent talk at Interaction 18, which he kicked off by asking a room full of technologists to imagine some scenarios, including the following:
- You are the data analyst that helps build a nearly-perfect targeted ad platform that powers a billion-dollar business. But then foreign hackers use it to influence a presidential campaign and attack a representative democracy.
- You write a machine-learning spell-check algorithm, the best in the world and deployed globally. But one day it auto-corrects some prescription drug names into different drug names, causing harm to innocent people.
The point of examples like these are not to blame the technology or it’s makers. The point is to illustrate the responsibility we bear for what we make. As Cooper says in his talk, we move forward not just by patching holes in current technology, but by preventing these kinds of abuses from being an option in future technology.
Which brings us here.
Everyone draws their lines in different ways and perhaps there is a spectrum of what is reasonable when implementing influential products. That’s exactly why technologists must seek to educate themselves on the patterns they are implementing in order to understand their psychological influence and other outcomes where intended use is not always the same as the reality of the user experience. Not only that, but we should feel empowered to speak up to authority when something crosses a line.
Even with the formidable power we wield in our day-to-day lives as engineers, designers, product managers, data scientists, etc., there is very little education and oversight on ethics in our industry. And I’m not the only one having this moment of introspection—it's felt all over, from an iPhone creator to Y Combinator’s leader and more.
This discovery process drove me to understand better those industries which do incorporate ethical standards into their professions, and led me create a version of the physician’s Hippocratic Oath, but for technologists. While this is not the first pledge for tech employees, and it will not be the last, it is part of this new world where we can no longer be ignorant of our responsibilities and the potential ramifications of our work.
Originally this was a personal endeavor, made as a standard that I could adhere to myself during a period of especially consequential design work. But as I’ve slowly widened the circle of colleagues I’ve shared it with, some of them have also found value in it. Perhaps you will as well.