Chris Simpson and Oliver Burmeister
Is it possible for the global community raise itself out of the rut of economic rationalism?
Yes it is! Academics can be instrumental in a grass roots approach to solving this problem, by adequately enabling tomorrow’s professionals to express broader vision and renewed values in all that they do and with all whom they meet.
This paper proposes several enabling strategies, supported by results of a survey of student perceptions of current in-course industry experience administration. Although the discussion applies to technical disciplines, particularly Information Technology and Engineering, it should still be of general cross-disciplinary interest.
It is important to follow the logical train of thought that has led us to suggest these strategies:
Why does this economic rationalist rut hurt so much? It is an unethical and inhumane, all pervasive ethos, in which wrong decisions are knowingly being made. They are wrong because of the singular and inadequate measure of worth being used – money. Furthermore, such decisions are often being made conscious of, but helpless against a system that is so powerful and globally pervasive. The rut is channelling the community into crisis.
Much of the social agony and environmental destruction resulting from this outlook has been directly or indirectly attributable to computing tools, that have allowed an information revolution to gather pace and a gap to widen between new techniques and awareness of their consequences.
Can we, the Information Technologists and Computer Engineers, begin to curb and redress some of the license born of our creations and discoveries? Yes, some of us can. Can we take responsibility and find ways of taming and humanising applications of this powerful and compulsive technology? Yes, there are ways. Is it not a similar problem that, say, nuclear and biological scientists have had to face? Perhaps the scale differs, but that is not the point.
The real problem lies not with the technology, itself benign, but as throughout history, with the attitudes of the human beings: those who apply the technology to their own ends. The influential choice has always been with these entrepreneurial people. Around the world they, being fallible, have provided the basic motive for people concerned about ethical issues to form groups that collectively aim to prevent gross abuses. However, many efforts towards ethical reform are not succeeding. Possibly the most effective reform will come from the grass roots, as the following two compelling reasons suggest:
Firstly, there has been a widespread tendency for executive management to take up and abuse ethical integrity through misinterpretation and institutionalisation of originally good principles such as the elusive “quality” and euphemistic “efficiency”. In its distorted form “ethics” is currently sweeping the world, being used as a political weapon and means of justification rather than in a selfless, caring sense. Glossy ethics is no substitute for the real thing. Vested interest and job security play persuasive parts in trapping administrators into dehumanising decisions.
Secondly, within the range of a particular discipline of interest, the basic aim of an ethics group, such as a professional body, has been to generate guidelines for the humane and sensitive use of their technology, to carefully keep watch, and to whistle-blow in blatant cases of breach. However, as many members (particularly managers) are under increasing pressure from economic rationalism and vested interest in the workplace, such aims are less likely to be applied without compromise.
A grass roots approach is accessible via those destined for, but not yet in industry, namely our budding professionals: our students! It is they who can influence their workplace colleagues and supervisors with fresh, alternative and viable attitudes, with vision and awareness of the consequences of their work or design upon client, wider community and environment. They can apply their courage and new awareness to measure worth in more humane terms than before, and likewise constructively challenge the entrenched ways.
This cannot occur without adequate relevant education. Thus, an astonishing, new and urgent imperative for the academic community is to take up the responsibility for this essential revolution of attitude, that most people desperately long for, by finding and applying ways to make it succeed!
Help is at hand. A timely new wave of ethical awareness is rapidly growing, especially among academics. The literature is expanding and centres have been set up that address a specific discipline’s attitudes to ethical questions and organise relevant international conferences. In other words, a growing academic support environment already exists, perfect for encouraging fresh, worthwhile initiatives.
Currently, Information Technology and Engineering courses typically contain relatively little non-technical education. What little exists is inferred through perhaps a (social) communications subject early in the course, some group projects, and design subjects like software engineering, that embrace some project management, social and legal issues. But this is minimal. The balance is quite wrong if one considers that probably half of an average professional’s day to day activities are non-technical. Furthermore, what about ethical issues per se? There are three major strategies proposed:
First, every subject in a course should include much more indirect attention to human/ environmental issues in an ethical light as part of, or extensions to, normal examples and exercises. At ETHICOMP96 and earlier, Don Gotterbarn has shown practical ways of doing this.
Second, introduce into a course a specific subject or thread, designed to provide some otherwise neglected training in non-technical aspects of professional practice, including a good, hard look at ethical values. Swinburne University of Technology (SUT) School of Information Technology, has experience with a specific final year non-technical, ethics- based subject “Computing in the Human Context”. An interesting observation is that the effect of this subject is significantly more profound among those students who, after second year, took a year-long Work- Integrated Learning (WIL) placement, which at present is optional.
Third, substantial industrial experience should be an important part of a course. One example we can point to is a very successful Business Information Technology scholarship course at SUT. A student survey will have been conducted by the time the full paper is written, which should illuminate various aspects from the student perspective. We will also consider industry liaison opportunities that can run in parallel with WIL.
Suggested strategies can all be improved and refined to further expand the far-sightedness, sensitivity and social responsibility of graduates. But consider that even now, some graduates are influencing their colleagues, supervisors and clients to think more broadly. With renewed values, they are applying humane vision to their work and through this, providing benefit to the whole community and the environment. That gives us hope.
The grass roots revolution has already begun to redress the computer application disasters of our generation.