Software Development, Morality, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, and Victor Frankenstein

For those who haven’t watched ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, I highly recommend a showing. It follows Walter Mitty, a daydreaming “negative asset manager” at LIFE magazine during its conversion to a fully-online offering. It truly is a visually stunning work.

The opening premise, LIFE magazine moving online and the inevitable downsizing and layoffs, struck a chord that has been, and is still, resonating: Is there a place for morality in software developer’s drive toward automation and efficiency?

One would be quite right in saying that the issue of ‘worker layoffs due to automation’ is not a new problem. History is full of examples. What piques my interest is the generality of software automation. The immense reach of software naturally leads to an immense number of avenues for automation.

For example: I found myself talking with a colleague about the problems that they were having with some of their staff. When we finally distilled the problem down to its essence, we discovered that a great portion of his department was dedicated to the handling and sorting of files (originally electronic, then printed, then sorted and filed). I found myself flippantly stating that I could replace most of his department with a script.

My watching of ‘Walter Mitty’ sparked a wave of introspection, and a single question welled within me: If I could write a script that replaces an entire department, should I?

The script would increase the company’s efficiency through a significant reduction in cost. But why is efficiency so important that one would look for avenues to terminate the employment of others? Who benefits from it? Recently, it seems, the cost savings would not make its to the remaining employees but would become a bonus for an executive, or manager, or perhaps dividends for shareholders.

Is inefficiency really that bad? In this case a department is being employed to do work. They are doing the work satisfactorily. Their wages pay for local food, rent, and expenses. This provides a boon to the local economy. If the populace is scraping by financially they surly will not be purchasing cars, houses, or other ‘big ticket items’. Would this not stagnate the greater economy?

Would a 100%-efficient company have anyone working there?

My authorship of this script directly instigates the termination of those employees. The causative relationship is undeniable.

Such scenarios are drenched with hubris as such mechanisms are en-route to also replace developers. In this we are the architects of our own obsolescence and ultimate demise: Dr. Frankenstein would surely have words with us. It is pure arrogance to assume such devices would not also be applied towards our craft.

Some may argue that apparatuses are in place to mitigate such effects, or that the evolution of the market warrants the employee’s termination: ‘They have become obsolete and must retool to stay competitive’, or ‘that is what welfare is for’, or ‘universal basic income is the future for this very reason’. Such comments do not address my question, ‘If one could write a script to replace a large group of people’s jobs, should they?’, rather they address the symptom, or after-effects, of such a decision — The employees are terminated, now what?

Perhaps this is the issue?

At the risk of sounding defensive I must note that I am not one to resist change. Resistance to change in our particular field is a doomed prospect to say the least. But one must address the social and economic implications of their decisions. One must have a conscience.

This question burns within me, and I do not have an answer. The creation of software is a technical achievement, a work of art, a labor of love, and wildly creative. It behooves those who embark on such journeys to consider their implications. Perhaps it is our hubristic tendencies as developers, or our arrogance, that drives us to construct our own monsters. Dr. Frankenstein would surely have words with us.


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