Shifting boundaries: The responsibility of the computing professionals in the information society

Ruud van Dael and Marc van Lieshout


In this paper we will discuss the shifting grounds on which the attribution of responsibility to computer professionals takes place. At first glance this attribution process seems unproblematic: (members of) a profession is (are) responsible for its (their) own products. So, the computing profession should take its responsibility. We will however argue that the shifting boundaries of the computing profession make the attribution of responsibility problematic. We illustrate these issues with two Dutch cases.

The first case discusses the founding of formal informatics education in the Netherlands. In the first academic informatics curriculum which started in 1980, applied informatics was left out. Applying software in organizations was not regarded as part of ‘real’ informatics. Real informatics was the fundamental study of data-processing, it focused on algorithms, operating systems and formal methods. At this academic level, people working in applied informatics were no part of the computing profession.

Seven years earlier, two kinds of higher vocational informatics education had started: one course in technical informatics and one in applied informatics. Graduates from the technical course became specialists in ‘hard’ software, graduates from the applied course in ‘soft’ software. At this vocational level, people working with applied software in organisations (for instance designing information systems) were part of the computing profession. The apparent contradiction between what should be seen as sound part of informatics can not easily be attributed to the difference between vocational and academic disciplinary work. Today, both educational systems converge, making the discrimination between both professional careers superficial. In attributing responsibility to a professional group, the demarcation between both groups of professional workers is detrimental for a transparent strategy with respect to professional responsibility.

Our second case discusses the contemporary alleged shortage of computing professionals in the Netherlands. Last year a governmental advisory committee stated that the shortage of computing professionals on the labor market was a structural problem. This report argued that three different groups shaped the computing profession: people who formalize and represent information in algorithms; people who study, design, develop, implement, support or maintain computer related information systems; and people who use information technology in an advanced manner. This description resulted in boundaries of the computing profession that enclosed groups of ‘users’.

Not everybody agreed with these boundaries. In a 1996 report on the future of informatics the authors, professors in informatics, stated that using information systems was not a part of their science. The professors explicitly excluded the ‘users’ from the computing profession. Again, the interpretation of who is ‘inside’ and who is ‘outside’ the group of computing professionals has not satisfactory been solved, and introduces ambiguities with respect to professional and responsible behaviour. Both these examples show that the boundaries of the computing profession were and are unstable, and even unclear. What does this imply for attributing responsibility to the computing profession? Responsibility, just as tasks, is either claimed by a profession or attributed to a profession by society. In the traditional view, responsibility was causally related to the mandate a profession received to perform a certain set of tasks. There was societal consensus on the professional expertise. A professional did not need to claim responsibility for his tasks, since his domain of expertise was not open for negotiation.

Our examples point however in another direction. In case of computing professionals, there is no consensus on the boundaries of their expertise. No strict and unquestioned demarcation lines are available that decide who belongs to the profession and who does not. It thus remains opaque what tasks are attributed to the computing profession and to what responsibilities these tasks are related. As long as different boundaries are constructed around the expertise of the computing professions, the attribution and claiming of responsibility will remain a cumbersome affair. The very notion that expert knowledge itself is negotiable, complicates the problem of responsibility. Our examples of applied informatics in the seventies and of using advanced information systems in the nineties are a case in point. The traditional idea of unquestioned professional knowledge is replaced by the late modern notion of fragmented contradictory expertise. Hence the idea of an impartial responsible professional is no longer valid. Responsibility is also open to negotiation.