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Doing the Right Thing

In the final section of this book, I would like to take a step back. Throughout this book we have examined a wide range of different architectures for data systems, evaluated their pros and cons, and explored techniques for building reliable, scalable, and maintainable applications. However, we have left out an important and fundamental part of the discussion, which I would now like to fill in.

Every system is built for a purpose; every action we take has both intended and unintended consequences. The purpose may be as simple as making money, but the consequences for the world may reach far beyond that original purpose. We, the engineers building these systems, have a responsibility to carefully consider those consequences and to consciously decide what kind of world we want to live in.

We talk about data as an abstract thing, but remember that many datasets are about people: their behavior, their interests, their identity. We must treat such data with humanity and respect. Users are humans too, and human dignity is paramount.

Software development increasingly involves making important ethical choices. There are guidelines to help software engineers navigate these issues, such as the ACM’s Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice [77], but they are rarely discussed, applied, and enforced in practice. As a result, engineers and product managers sometimes take a very cavalier attitude to privacy and potential negative consequences of their products [78, 79, 80].

A technology is not good or bad in itself—what matters is how it is used and how it affects people. This is true for a software system like a search engine in much the same way as it is for a weapon like a gun. I think it is not sufficient for software engineers to focus exclusively on the technology and ignore its consequences: the ethical responsibility is ours to bear also. Reasoning about ethics is difficult, but it is too important to ignore.

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