May 25, 2013

What Is a Technologist's Responsibility After the Product Is Sold?

Go read this article on Wired: Alfred Anaya Put Secret Compartments in Cars. So the DEA Put Him in Prison.  This gets at the heart of a question I've mulled over for some time.  What is the moral responsibility of someone that designs and/or builds a technology once it is purchased by the customer?

To summarize my position, the designer and builder must make a good quality product, well suited to it's purpose, and the purpose must be for good and within moral boundaries God has given us.  In this view, the designer & builder are responsible if those become clearly not true after the sale.

However, this article is about Alfred Anaya who made custom secret compartments in cars, that at least some customers used to smuggle drugs.  He was eventually convicted of federal crimes and is in jail for decades - much longer than those that actually ran the drug ring.  He never ran drugs himself, nor saw them, but saw a large stash of cash one time in a secret compartment he was repairing.

The legal issues aside for the moment, what is the moral aspect of this?  In general, I think the technologist cannot control whether someone uses their product for good or evil.  I can imagine many scenarios where I would like a hidden compartment in my car. Any technology can be used for evil, so the technologist cannot possibly design out all evil potential.  The only other criteria I can see where he may have failed is to do technology within moral boundaries.  Apparently, compartments like the ones he built are popular among drug runners.  Should he have gotten out of that business because some customers may be using them for illegal activities?  Sould he have kept a customer receipt that he submitted to police every now and then?  Should he be responsible even when he only suspects someone of running drugs and risks carges of a false report himself?  Are there legitimate, good reasons for someone to install one of these in their car?  Yes, and on that basis I think this is a bad prescedent.

Agree or disagree?

May 22, 2013

Vending Machine with a Prick for the Conscience

This is an old story, but Facebook's offices have vending machines to dispense replacement computer accessories for employees.  They're free, but there are two things that make the employees think twice about just emptying the machine for themselves.  First, the retail price of each item is displayed so the employee knows just how much they're costing the company by grabbing one.  Second, they have to swipe their employee ID card for it to dispense an item.  This way, those that do abuse the system can be found fairly easily.

I really like this use of technology.  It indicates a level of trust of the employees to do the right thing - grab what they need and no more.  The employee is shown how much they're costing the company when they take one of these items so that they must morally justify it to themselves (and to not leave the power cord where the dog can chew it up in the future).  Also, there is more accountability than what you get from an unlocked cabinet with the equipment just piled up in it, ready to take.

And, it's good for the company.  They claim the cost of managing replacement computer accessories has dropped by 35%.  That's a lot of time that IT people can spend on projects instead of deciding whether or not to replace someone's keyboard and then running it out to them.

So, here's some praise for an excellent use of technology to make life a little easier for everyone involved and supports good moral choices.

May 9, 2013


This was an interesting article: 

 It touches on the seeming importance of Twitter (only 16% of Internet users are on it), how much the 140 character format constrains communication, how it encourages narcissism, and how "followers" can be purchased for artificial popularity. The point about encouraging narcissism particularly struck me. Here's the writer's description of Twitter: 

 "A technology that incentivizes its status-conscious, attention-starved users to yearn for ever more followers and retweets..." 

I think any social media can encourage narcissism by letting you at least think you're reaching and influencing lots of people. We've even modernized and systematized narcissism by quantifying your popularity. You can easily track your followers, friends, likes, and retweets and check your popularity against others. 

 For myself, it's made me think about how I use social media. I'm not less sinful because I don't tweet (except to feed blog posts there) - I can be just as narcissistic through an paper newsletter. However, it seems that Twitter is a technology that should be used cautiously at risk of encouraging love for yourself.

May 4, 2013

A long, tech support filled week

This was the last week of classes at WCU and usually the busiest week of the semester for my office. Many assignments come due that need tech support, plus all the equipment that we check out comes back in now. I usually keep work betweem 8 am and 5 pm during the week, but this week I had to keep up with email at all hours.

I write this because 1) I want to explain why I haven't posted this week, 2) to say "thank you" to the many folks that work hard in support to keep things running, and 3) to make us aware of each other's work. I don't see the entirety of how most other people spend their time at work, so one trap to fall in to is to assume they don't work as hard as you do. Even if their work is not visible, it takes a lot of folks to keep a sizeable university (or business) going. One of the guys at WCU that drives the garbage truck is my co-den leader. This past Monday he looked worn out and he explained how he had to get in much earlier than usual and work long hours the last two weeks of the semester.

I have to tip my hat even more to the small business owners that don't have this specialized support and have to do it all themselves.

So, to those that do the hard front-line work of teaching (or whatever you do for your big organization), remember there's an army of folks backing you up. We want you to succeed, which is why we do what we do, even if hidden away much of the time.