The app economy is booming. Back in May, Apple noted customers are downloading “more than 800 apps per second at a rate of over two billion apps per month on the App Store.” While this massive market reflects consumer taste at a time when smartphones and tablets are ubiquitous, a dark side also clouds consumer consequences. With respect to games alone, we hear recurring stories of exploited kids, adults being tricked into “doing something against their will,” and questionable privacy practices.
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Shannon Vallor, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Santa Clara University and author of An Introduction to Software Engineering Ethics, a free downloadable teaching tool, believes app designers can do better. The needed improvement, however, won’t come from programmers and gaming companies waking up one morning with the vague epiphany that they’ve dropped the ball and are obliged to make a stronger commitment to the public good. First and foremost, they’ve got to separate signal from noise and focus on the most fundamental issues.
To help everyone zero in on the essentials, Vallor recently gave a talk at Renaissance IO 2014, an app developers conference in San Francisco. In her talk, Vallor discusses five important ethics questions that app designers should consider.
- Should app designers go beyond the minimal restrictions of regulatory compliance when designing their data collection policies? (If so, what kind of information should be off limits? And, how much information is too much?)
- Should app designers refrain from creating addictive tools and services, even if they can make tons of money tapping into and manipulating base desires and tendencies?
- Should app designers feel responsible for participating in exclusionary markets that leave users in the dust who can’t afford their goods and services?
- Should app designers temper their drive for competitive advantage by fostering other goods, like promoting more diversity in the developer community?
- If app designers are developing products for a big company, should they be entitled to see themselves as mere cogs in the machine and blame anything that goes wrong on corporate decisions?
These are vexing questions, and Vallor doesn’t pretend to be a guru who can answer them definitively. Instead, her modest goal is to get a new conversation going about personal and professional responsibility in the software arena. Vallor notes (in a private email conversation) that:
“Many developers in the Renaissance audience expressed great frustration with the industry’s ongoing failure to police itself adequately – both during the Q&A and in informal conversations afterwards. Several expressed particular impatience with app platform providers such as Apple and Google, who they perceive as reluctant to step in and mandate fair and ethical practices among developers. Some stated that they felt forced to choose between abandoning the industry or ‘selling their soul’ to remain competitive among their peers without scruples.”
Anyone interested in the relation between apps and ethics should watch Vallor’s entire presentation. You’ll come away with a better understanding of how software developers and marketers don’t stop at selling us user-friendly code. They’ve got a particular vision of the good life to sell us—and it isn’t always good for everyone.
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