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.

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.

Two Books, Two Audiences

For my two books, I have two audiences in mind:

  • potential and current I/T architects, and
  • those who would hire them

For the I/T architect I will provide them a way of integrating business, economics and law into computing system designs. I will teach them a little about legal theory, contract theory and transaction cost economics in a concrete way they can incorporate into their models.  In the end, the I/T architecture will be in a better position to predict business impact than they have traditionally been.

For those who would hire the I/T architect, this will be a book recap a little business theory and the role of computer systems in relation to transaction economics.  Nothing new here, but the twist will be to educate that employer on how to discuss these important business issues with the I/T architect in a way that is mutually understandable for the both of them.  I will also introduce “I/T thinking” to the employer who hasn’t a clue.  There is a great cultural divide between the “business” and “technology” worlds which I believe can be breached by thinking in terms of concepts every human can relate to, that is the ethics of architecture.