Architecture Ethics

I am now developing an online course on “Architecture Ethics” for IASA.  Currently, I have defined the course objectives as follows.  The target audience are information technology architects and architects-in-training, primarily in North America and Europe although I hope that Asian students will also find it informative.  (My recent experience in China has provided me with a number of good examples for all students.)

My current introduction:

What do Love Canal and Barclays have in common?  In these very public cases, improper ethical planning arguably encouraged opportunities for immoral action.  As a professional architect you are in a position of leadership and trust, and are responsible for the ethical implications of your decisions and the morality of your actions.  You are responsible for the ethical planning of your daily work and long term career including the proper selection of projects, the identification of collaborative environments that can enable or hinder success, avoiding moral risks to employer and customer, meeting the challenges of regulatory and legal frameworks, and even for the determination of proper compensation for your effort and risks.  This course will introduce you to concrete skills that will help you recognize potential ethical failures in the practice of computing-associated architecture, strategies to mitigate or otherwise compensate for those failures, and ultimately, simply put, how to architect well.

After completing this course, you will be able to:

  • Identify some of your highest risk factors to project and career success, and strategies to counter them.
  • Identify financial impacts of ethical decision making in architecture.
  • Identify and communicate additional ethical considerations for your particular community, industry, employer, and job.
  • Effectively communicate the value of professional architecture.
  • Develop an ethical context, or “Collaborative Viewpoint” for your Architecture Description.
  • Understand why the ethical context is the proper frame within which you should understand everything you do as a professional architect, and why IASA exists.

Target audience:

  • Information technology architects, solution architects, and enterprise architects
  • Students training for a career in computing-associated architecture
  • Potential employers and clients of computing-associated architects

ITIL and Economic Value

I just completed ITIL foundations training.  I’ll let you all know later, when I find out, if I passed the test.  [Update: I did.]

What caught my attention most during training is that the ITIL library writers, in my opinion, correctly identified economic value as a combination of both (marginal) utility and warranty (irreversibility).  Somewhere along the line, I/T practitioners discovered what few economists (save for some, like Hernando de Soto Polar) bothered to factor into so many economic formulations: utility is fine, but if the economic actor fails to perceive that their utility is theirs to keep, then the sense of economic value falls.  While property rights (de Soto) alone do not economic value make, they are necessary prerequisites for any functioning economy.  In information technology a service like Google provides great utility, but if it were perceived as an unreliable service its overall economic value would drop through the floor.

Of course, the ITIL “utility + warranty” model is itself a little simplistic.   Max Neef breaks up utility further:

  • affection
  • creation
  • freedom
  • identity
  • leisure
  • participation
  • protection (security, warranty)
  • subsistence
  • understanding

Max Neef provides a nice balance of qualities, certainly, but I feel that protection/security/warranty/irreversibility plays a very specific role in economic transactions because of the way our brains are built.  I believe it remains useful to break out qualities associated with irreversibility (security, protection, warranty) into a separate, analyzable category of study.  For me, ITIL’s “utility + warranty” description of economic value is a great model to use.

Technological Unemployment, the Architecture Profession, and My Worth as an Author

I believe Michael Ferguson‘s analysis about the future, jobs, and technological unemployment is essentially correct,

Technology is automating more and more jobs.  We software-oriented architects are the “grunts” that are helping to usher this process along.  Indeed, we are working to automate ourselves out of traditional employment.  We have been creating conditions which favor permanent entrepreneurship for every one of us, and which do not favor traditional employment for any of us.

From a Coasean economics perspective, information technology is helping to reduce general transaction costs worldwide such that transaction costs internal to firms and external to them are approaching parity.  In other words, it is increasingly nonsensical for any company to bother hiring employees.  This does not mean however, that companies do not need people, nor does it mean that future consumers do not need the products of your hard work!  Read Michael’s article for his detailed analysis of this phenomenon.

How can I write a book on a “theory of I/T architecture”, of the philosophy and science of I/T architecture, without addressing this trend?  I can’t.  I need to discuss where we have been as professionals, where we are, and where were are going.  I must play the futurist and make predictions.  Of course, some of my predictions will be shown to have been correct over time, some wrong, but stick my neck out I must!  There is no way I can write such a book, sit on the side lines, and simply throw up my arms and say, “I have no idea what to do next.”  If I am not attempting to help my readers make critical decisions about their personal futures, then what good would I be as an author?  Why should you bother to read what I have to write?

Memory, Irreversibility and Transactions

A “system” is a finite set of memory components interrelated through causative event maps.

Phwew, that was a mouthful!  What does that mean?

Memory is the ability of matter to change state and maintain that state for a non-zero period of time.  At the smallest scales of existence, atoms have memory when, for instance, chemical changes influence the electron configuration of those atoms.  The ability of paper to hold graphite markings throughout its lifetime is also a form of memory.

An event is a directional transfer of energy from one memory component to another, from source to target, in a way that induces a state change in the target which lasts for a non-zero period of time.  An event is an event if it alters the memory configuration of its target.  An event map is a set of source/target associations.  Causality is the study of the effects of event maps upon their state-absorbing targets.

To study a system is to study a well-defined, finite set of memory components and the causative event maps which affect those components.  For every system under study, there exists that which is outside of that system which we call the system’s environment.  Causative events flow from system to environment, and from environment to system, composing a causative event map called a feedback loop.

Entropy is the degree to which a system has been affected by its causative event map.  Low entropy implies that a system has “room” to absorb new state changes in an unambiguous way.  A set of aligned, untoppled dominoes has low entropy.  High positive entropy implies that a system has attained a degree of ambiguity with regard to its ability to absorb specific kinds of changes.  A set of toppled dominoes has a high degree of entropy relative to “toppling” events.  One can attempt to topple already-toppled dominoes, but the result is ambiguous in that it is more difficult to leave evidence of a toppling event (a finger push) than it was prior to toppling.  Negative entropy is a condition in which a system is to some degree “reset” so that it can once again, unambiguously, absorb more events than it could before.  To induce negative entropy into a system of toppled dominoes is to set them back up again to be retoppled.

All physical systems tend to increase in measures of entropy over time.  They do so because they have memory and exhibit hysteresis.  To memorize a change is to freeze that change in time.  Changes induced by previous events interfere with the ability of new events to be absorbed.  A thermodynamically hot system imparts kinetic events to cold systems they are connected to, at the cost of the energy stored in its own memory.  Slowly, the cold systems absorb the kinetic energy of the hot until a point is reached which the cold memory systems reach capacity, or become saturated.  Such a point of memory capacity saturation is called “equilibrium”.  If the cold system had no memory, for instance if it were a vacuum, it would never have increased in temperature and the hot system would have eventually become absolutely cold since it would be connected to systems with infinite capacities to absorb events.

As noted by Erwin Schrödinger, life in general has a “habit” of reversing entropy and in fact could be defined by this single, dominant habit.  Lifeless physical systems tend towards maximum positive entropy and tend to remain that way.  Life, on the other hand, does its damnedest to reverse entropy.  For life, it is not merely enough to keep entropy from increasing.  Like all systems, life which is saturated to its limit of information capacity can fail to adapt to a changing environment.  Life is a process through which its subsystems are continually de-saturated in order to make room for new information.  Life depends on entropy reversal.

This is not to say that entropy reversal does not happen to lifeless systems; entropy may be reversed here and there and for short periods of time.  Random, isolated reversals of entropy in any system however are always—even in the case of life—compensated for by an increase of entropy in the outer environment.  Ultimately, the Great Environment we call the Universe is continually losing more and more of its ability to unambiguously absorb new events.  The arrow of time since the Big Bang is the story of how the memory components of the Universe are reaching capacity saturation.

The metaphor of the economic transaction is useful for describing the flow of events leading to entropy reversal.  Financial transactions follow the same entropy build-up and subsequent decrease.  Even in the simplest of cases, financial participants form a “memory system” which saturates before it collapses.  Work is done between participants before money is exchanged.  The exchange of money allows the information of the transaction to “compress”, and entropy to reverse in the well-defined, temporary system of the particular transaction.  This entropy reversal occurs, of course, at the expense of the outer environment.  Quantum transactions also follow the same build-up and tear-down in terms of the memory capacities of participating elements of matter.

For true de-saturation to occur within a system, a system’s memory must be irreversibly erased.  If memory erasure were reversible, then memory would not have been erased and the system would have remained saturated.  “Reversible” memory loss is not true memory loss, but an illusion, a shuffling, a card trick.  Irreversibility however, comes at a price for a system.  One can shuffle sand in a sandbox from one side to another, but to truly increase the capacity of a sandbox one must expend energy to remove sand from it and returning that sand to the outer environment.  “Irreversibility” however, is not some separate, measurable feature of entropy reversal, but is a necessary part of its definition.  If a transaction is reversible, then entropy was not reversed.  If entropy has not been reversed, either partially or completely, then the transaction metaphor does not apply.  Irreversibility is a necessary test to determine the appropriateness of the transaction metaphor.

Cognitive Irreversibility and Economic Value

Call me “fascinated” by my own comment from a previous post,

The successful conclusion of an economic transaction represents a difficult-to-reversecognitive commitment by the participants to a balance of trade-offs, or economic utility.

My fascination lies with what seems to me to be a pervasive phenomenon in human affairs which I call cognitive irreversibility, which is a perception by a human agent that a willful physical action of theirs is to some degree irreversible.  From an economics perspective, I am exploring that cognitive irreversibility may be a necessary condition for economic value to emerge.  This is not a simple re-hash of Hernando de Soto’s imperative of property rights.  Rather I suspect that irreversibility may be something of an imperative, an entropy imperative, for a great deal of human cognitive behavior including:

  • compression in cognitive concept-building
  • time reduction as a complexity management strategy
  • the emergence of the concept of property
  • marginal utility in economics
  • the attraction of tyrannical leadership (irreversible surrender to authority)
  • rape, murder and war (the imposition of irreversibility)
  • tattooing and body piercing (here is where it becomes explicit)
  • transsexualism as a mechanism to manage “out of control” empathy

I am not suggesting that humans always explicitly seek “irreversibility” in decision-making, but that a lot of human behavior (especially that which we consider “economic activity”) can be modeled using one-way motivational operators, that is modeled in terms of what appears to be either explicit entropy-seeking or entropy-seeking gone wrong (cognitive failure).  I am also not suggesting that human activity can be mathematically modeled using thermodynamics.  Rather, similar to what the early information theorists did, I am borrowing the concept of “entropy” for its superficial relationship to irreversibility (Shannon seemed to be attracted to the idea of information variety).

I’ll post more later as I develop the idea further, but in the mean time consider the cognitive phenomenon of “boat burning”, or “Crossing the Rubicon”, or point of no return,

Update: given a physically rigorous definition of entropy, I may want to reconsider borrowing the term as an analogy for “irreversibility”,

Entropy change is the measure of how more widely a specific quantity of molecular energy is dispersed in a process, whether isothermal gas expansion, gas or liquid mixing, reversible heating and phase change or chemical reactions, as shown by the Gibbs free energy equation/T .”

While models such as Gibbs free energy for chemistry loosely associate irreversibility with entropy, the association is not necessary and may even be misleading.  The association, for instance, may lead one to assume that equations of thermodynamics may somehow be applicable to economics.  As Claude Shannon was aware, this is not necessarily so.

Human Thermodynamics

Human thermodynamics is a fascinating topic, which might be “unifying” across not only physics but also across economics, history, politics, sociology and human psychology!  Consider “irreversibility” in economics not as a by-product of economic trade, agreement, contract, property rights and general rule of law, but a feature which reduces the cognitive load in the human brain.

What if it turns out we humans are built to seek “cognitive irreversibility”?  What if irreversibility in human affairs is not an epiphenomenon but part of our cognitive goal-seeking repertoire?

I am not certain of the utility of applying thermodynamic analysis to human behavior and economics, and I certainly to not wax ergosophic, but I can certainly see the utility of including “irreversibility-seeking” as a goal to be optimized in game theory.

Update (25 June 2011): The actual work at the web site I consider bull.  The theorists, I believe, do not understand the degree to which they are merely borrowing an analogy.

Transactions, Auctions and Economic Value

An important aspect of any economic transaction is that it represents the conclusion of an auction, however simple, however formal, however significant or trivial its outcome.  “Economic transactions” are the name we give to the human process by which multiple people arbitrate economic value.  The successful conclusion of an economic transaction represents a difficult-to-reversecognitive commitment by the participants to a balance of trade-offs, or economic utility.

Trade-off balancing in real life is not always easy.  You and I know what it is like to “waffle”, to be uncertain about a choice in the face of uncertainty, to fear the impact of difficult decisions.  You and I know what it is like to put off these difficulties, sometimes for the rest of our lives, because we are uncertain which choice would lead to greatest happiness or least pain.  I am sure you know what it is like to stand before two expensive products you like, perhaps two similar automobiles you wish to buy or two homes, and fret over the uncertain of which choice would be best.  The result of a successful economic transaction however is the act of committing to one decision or another, “placing your money where your mouth is” and coming to a decisive conclusion.  Anyone who has ever been in a difficult choice situation should immediately recognize the true value of intellectual commitment in the face of uncertainty.  Without an actual trade between individuals, without committing to a transaction which is difficult to reverse, decisions can waffle forever and die on the vine.  Goods may never be created.  Services never executed.  Resources never harvested.  Precious time in the lives of humans never put to good use.  The commitment aspect of the economic transaction is the root of economic value.

Mathematicians, engineers and computer programmers are painfully familiar with the difficulty of developing machinery to perform trade-off optimization.  While tools such as linear programming have been introduced over time to tackle problems which cannot be solved exactly through methods of strict analysis, we human beings bring our unique capacity of inductive reasoning to bear to perform this work ourselves with amazing efficiency.  While inductive reasoning, value optimization and in fact the very ability to identity values which ought to fall in to any economic trade-off scenario are the lifeblood of human societies and individuals alike, the occurrence of these phenomena are often neglected by the business and even information technology architect.  The reason is, simply, that deductive-analytic exercises are relatively simple to do while inductive exercises are, if not difficult to identify, difficult-to-impossible to describe and analyze.

Difficulty in analysis however is no excuse to ignore sources of true economic value in any architectural description.  After all what is the purpose of any business or I/T architecture other than to create an environment where economic value can be optimized?  At the very least, armed with an understanding of what economic value is, the architect could develop “heat maps” of potential economic value.  Difficulty of analysis can used as an indicator of trade-off difficulty.  Where trade-off decisions are difficult, their potential committed solutions can be sources of some of the greatest economic value in any human collaboration.  This idea is also explored in disciplines such as information economics, business measurement theory and quality attribute theory in information technology.

In future posts I will write about the applicability of the “transaction” metaphor to quantum mechanics, as well as the use of heat maps in risk analysis.