Some References for “Architecture Ethics”

I am waiting to obtain some consensus from my IASA peers with regard to the course outline.  Until then, I will talk obliquely about the content as it seems to be shaping up.  For now, let me give you a list of some of the references I will include these below.  I will also include references to some of the other classics, like Aristotle, Plato, Kant, and Hume, but here are some interesting readings from modern times.

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.

It is Always a People Problem. Always.

There are no such things as technology problems, only people problems.

No technology can build itself, nor use itself, nor correct its own problems.  Even self-replicating machines, built using any technology in use (or even in conception) today, would merely execute the delayed choice of their builders.  Consider the case of a man, eager to protect his home against theft, who installs an anti-theft device which would kill any unwanted intruder, perhaps with a bullet to the head.  The homeowners’s device is commonly called a booby trap.  One day, while the home owner is away, an intruder enters the home and is killed.  Is the home owner responsible?  You betcha!  The home owner may claim they are not responsible because they did not pull the trigger directly, but in the end they made a choice to apply extreme prejudice to any intruder and they developed a device to execute that delayed choice.  The homeowner’s booby trap did not kill the intruder, the home owner did.  Every action of any technology, including any act of construction, any act of repair, or any act of use, is ultimately the extended action of human beings.

No technology is a perfect fit for any problem and all technologies come with trade-offs associated with their use.  Even survival comes with its own set of trade-offs.  It is the responsibility of human beings to understand their problems to the best of their abilities, to understand the trade-offs associated with the technology options before them, and to choose appropriate technologies wisely.  Trade-off balancing does not happen on its own.  Humans are the ultimate arbiters of which technology problems they choose to live with.

If all humans were to vanish from this Universe tomorrow, there would be no human problems of any kind.  Human technologies would instantly cease being human technologies and would merely exist as artifacts of matter like any other.  At the same instance of Universal human extinction, all “problems” would also similarly vanish.

This is not merely an academic exercise in ethics.  The implications of failing to understand this point can be tremendous.  If the home owner in my delayed choice example would have understood his culpability ahead of time, would he have been so eager to create his intruder-killing device?  The lack of understanding of the concept of delayed choice leads, in business, law and in politics, to a class of problem called moral hazards.  Failure to understand this critical point about technology, in particular computing technology, can cause some people to impart “magical” qualities to technologies which the technologies do not have, which can skew expectation, and can lead to project and business failure.

No, no, no.  The only kinds of problems which exist in this world are people problems, by definition.  If you doubt that, then find a way to kill all of humanity right now and watch all problems simply vanish away the moment before you and I cease to be.

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.

Unifying the Concept of “Transactions” Across Disciplines

I am working to unify the concept of “transaction” across the disciplines of:

  • economics,
  • business,
  • management,
  • information technology, and even
  • physics and psychology.

This is important: transaction analysis and design is not addressed well in the modeling paradigms of both I/T and enterprise architecture.  Unfortunately, I believe this is a critical omission.

Boiling the Ocean

My book will be a tour of both the most basic topics in I/T architecture and, simultaneously the most advanced.  I say “basic” because the philosophical underpinnings of any enterprise are the basic foundation upon which that enterprise rests.  These are topics every child should come to understand.  I say, “advanced” however, because these topics are tragically not taught and left for “advanced” studies.


As I move forward writing my book, I must work to avoid “boiling the ocean”.  I must winnow down my list of topics to what is relevant in architecture and justify why.  Of course, everything is relevant, eh?  (This will be one of my points.)