Ethics and Architecture

If you’ve not seen the BBC2 documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace catch it now on the BBC iPlayer while you can (doesn’t work outside the UK unfortunately). You can see a preview of the series (another two to go) on Adam Curtis’ (the film maker) web site here. The basic premise of the first programme is as follows.Back in the 50’s a small group of people took up the ideas of the novelist Ayn Rand whose philosophy of Objectivism advocated reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge and rejecting all forms of faith and religion. They saw themselves as a prototype for a future society where everyone could follow their own selfish desires. One of the Rand ‘disciples’ was Alan Greenspan. Cut to the 1990’s where several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs,  also followers of Rand’s philosophy, believed that the new computer networks would allow the creation of a society where everyone could follow their own desires without there being any anarchy. Alan Greenspan, now Chairman of the Federal Reserve, also became convinced that the computers were creating a new kind of stable capitalism and convinced President Bill Clinton of a radical approach to cut the United States huge deficit. He proposed that Clinton cut government spending and reduce interest rates letting the markets control the fate of the economy, the country and ultimately the world. Whilst this approach appeared to work in the short term, it set off a chain of events which, according to Curtis’ hypothesis, led to 9/11, the Asian financial crash of 1997/98, the current economic crisis and the rise of China as a superpower that will soon surpass that of the United States. What happened was that the “blind faith” we put in the machines that were meant to serve us led us to a “dream world” where we trusted the machines to manage the markets for us but in fact they were operating in ways we could not understand resulting in outcomes we could never predict.

So what the heck has this got to do with architecture?  Back in the mid-80’s when I worked in Silicon Valley I remember reading an article in the San Jose Mercury News about a programmer who had left his job because he didn’t like the applications that the software he’d been working on were being put to (something of a military nature I suspect). Quite a noble act you might think (though given where he worked I suspect the guy didn’t have too much trouble finding another job pretty quickly). I wonder how many of us really think about what the uses of the software systems we are working on are being put to?

Clearly if you are working on the control software for a guided missile it’s pretty clear cut what the application is going to be used for. However what about if you are creating some piece of generic middleware? Yes it could be put to good use in hospital information systems or food-aid distribution systems however the same software could be used for the ERP system of a tobacco company or in controlling surveillance systems that “watch over us with loving grace”.

Any piece of software can be used for both good and evil and the developers of that software can hardly have it on their conscious to worry about what that end use will be. Just like nuclear power leads to both good (nuclear reactors, okay, okay I know that’s debatable given what’s just happened in Japan) and bad (bombs) it is the application of a particular technology that decides whether something is good or bad. However, here’s the rub. As architects aren’t we the ones who are meant to be deciding on how software components are put together to solve problems, for both better and for worse? Is it not within our remit to control those ‘end uses’ therefore and to walk away from those projects that will result in systems that are being built for bad rather than good purposes? We all have our own moral compass and it is up to us as individuals to decide which way we point our own compasses. From my point of view I would hope that I never got involved in systems that in anyway lead to an infringement of a persons basic human rights but how do I decide or know this? I doubt the people that built the systems that are the subject of the Adam Curtis films ever dreamed they would be used in ways which have almost led to the economic collapse of our society? I guess it is beholden on all of us to research and investigate as much as we can those systems we find ourselves working on and decide for ourselves whether we think we are creating machines that watch over us with “loving grace” or which are likely to have more sinister intents. As ever, Aurthur C. Clarke predicted this several decades ago and if you have not read his short story Dial F for Frankenstein now might be a good time to do so.

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