Choices and the feel-right factor

Professional Awareness in Software Engineering - Practical Computer Ethics
September 8, 1995

The rapid growth in the 1990s of computers, related products, and their usage in such areas as home entertainment and tele- shopping via the Internet, has highlighted issues of ethics and responsibility. These issues are important not only to the producers of computer-based products such as the recently launched Microsoft Windows 95, but to the consumers also.

Duncan Langford and Colin Myers attempt to focus attention on social implications of individual actions that result specifically from their use or misuse of computer technology. The texts attempt to temper the herd instinct for applying the latest technology to proven, but old operations and procedures. However, both seemed to have targeted producers of the product, namely software engineers and computer scientists, even though the consumers (or end users), able to use such tools to access databases and communicate easily across computer networks, would benefit from having an awareness of many of the principles outlined.

In Practical Computer Ethics, the aim is to enable computer scientists to appreciate ethical issues in computing. The author recognises the subject-focused nature of most scientific education and the narrow guidelines and codes of practice available to the computing profession. He states: "I believe the only true satisfactory answer is for all professional computer scientists to develop an awareness of their own, individual values". Thus, the central argument seems to be that professionalism and consistent individual ethical codes are inseparable. Therefore, personal ethics should not be merely adhering to those stated by professional bodies, but should be more broadly-based, and "feel right" to the person concerned. In the first half of the book, Langford uses carefully reasoned arguments and self-evaluation questions that attempt to develop an awareness of one's own individual ethical code. The use of brief ethical dilemma scenario descriptions throughout the book was effective. I found them to be plausible, relevant, interesting, and easy to understand. However, I found the self-evaluation questions inappropriate outside of a group or team discussion context. Further, there was no reference point in the text where one could make comparisons and pursue further re-evaluation. Thus, it is very much a textbook to be used on training courses, rather than a handbook to be used on the job.

Although this text is aimed at computer scientists, its contents are relevant to consumers and producers of electronic media and information systems. This is further supported by the author's statement that large numbers of inexperienced users from a wide variety of backgrounds are now obtaining access to the Internet. Computers are no longer the sole domain of computer scientists, but have become a powerful tool to be handled professionally by all consumers.

In the case of Professional Awareness in Software Engineering I was one of the reviewers of the contributed articles edited by Colin Myers during the book's development. This is my second time reading the text and I am still favourably disposed to it. Myers also targets the text at the producers of computer-based products, who are referred to by all contributing authors as "software engineers". The collective view of the authors is that such people place more value on the technology than on its impact on potential victims. This is alluded to in the tongue-in-cheek alternative title Should a Software Engineer Wear a Suit which is used as a humorous point of focus for the contributing authors. Unlike the Langford book, much of the content is only relevant and useful to this occupational group.

The topic areas range from ethics and professional conduct (contributed by Duncan Langford) to women in computing, and each text raises points to ponder and issues for further debate. In his contribution on the implications of the Data Protection Act, Dave Pitt argues for "customer-focused" rather than "data-centred" design as a means of simplifying the customer access to data that the Act guarantees. Likewise, "Avoiding a Software Lawsuit" emphasises the liability of the software engineer in the event of product failure resulting in financial or physical loss to its consumers.

John Madsen proposes project teams that have a balance between Toads, Chameleons, and Snakes where the latter have the most tenuous links with computers and computer products. The contribution by Gillian Lovegrove on women in computing grapples with the very difficult policy issues in the areas of legislation, institutional culture, and positive action.

Ethnicity, race, and disability are mentioned in passing but are not discussed in the book. A further contribution in this area would have provided a more complete coverage of issues for software engineers producing international products in multicultural consumer and producer communities.

The contributions by all authors are also academically stimulating, and should prove useful on undergraduate programmes when used in conjunction with a textbook on ethics.

In conclusion, I found that each book complements the other. The Myers book contained the topic areas and case studies that could feed and fuel discussion of ethics in the context of the Langford text. Both texts I believe are essential reading in an industry such as computing, where the volume and speed of technological change is fast outstripping our ability to understand, control and evaluate the technology, let alone develop effective tools as we progress simultaneously from the craft of computer programming to a mature engineering discipline.

Rupert Simpson is a senior lecturer in the school of networks and software engineering, University of Central England.

Professional Awareness in Software Engineering

Author - Colin Myers
ISBN - 0 07 707837 3
Publisher - McGraw-Hill
Price - £17.95
Pages - 194

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