In the world of engineering, a breach in ethics falls into one of several categories. There's the stupid mistake; the ignored defect; the poorly tested product; the foolish, profit-driven decision; and perhaps even the nefarious goal.
More common than any of these, though, is the simple lack of imagination. To focus solely on the job at hand and the problems that must be overcome to assist a product along the path to its intended use—while ignoring other potential uses—can be as dangerous as ignoring known safety issues.
Of course, the ability to focus and problem-solve are usually prized in the world of engineering. But these strengths can make an engineer susceptible to an unethical lack of imagination. "It's tunnel vision," says Karl Stephan, a professor at the Ingram School of Engineering at Texas State University, who also writes a blog in engineering ethics. "You're handed a project and you're given this narrow thing to do: meet the specs and that's it, don't pay attention to anything else."
Precautions can be taken to avoid such a pitfall. Stephan recommends taking the time to jot down a few thoughts about a product's intended and potential use. "Make a list of everyone that's affected by what you might be doing," he says. "It's a very simple and useful method for beginning an ethical analysis of the problem.
"If there's someone that's harmed and put in a bad position and you don't realize they're involved, you can't do anything about it. The very first step is to figure out what part of the public is involved. You're prodding your imagination—how could this thing be used if somebody wanted to do bad stuff?"
Though it might seem like an easy and obvious measure, rarely is it part of the protocol of product development. And in a world where almost every new piece of technology is hooked up to the information grid, skipping that step can be a serious lapse. "The infrastructure that we have now is so much more vulnerable to remote attack," says Stephan. "There are things that people never used to have to worry about because they were purely mechanical."
Take the elevator—it was once a self-contained mechanical mode of vertical transportation. "Nowadays, elevators are networked, remotely programmable and monitored and all that kind of stuff," says Stephan. "It would be enticing to some at least mischievous person to screw stuff up by messing with its operating system."
For an elevator designer—or his manager—to put on blinders and think forward only to the button-pressing passengers of the future is to put those passengers in danger, according to Stephan.
Companies and engineers who feel their imaginations might be too atrophied to accurately foresee the malicious can always outsource the problem. "There are consultants out there who will hack your product for you, and think evil thoughts for you," says Stephen. "He gets to pretend he's a bad guy, hacks it down, and figures it out. He's paid to have this evil imagination, to figure out how this product could be misused, and give a report of the weaknesses that he's found."
Bottom line: imagine the worst-case user. And if you don't have the necessary mean streak to do it, find someone who does.
Michael Abrams is an independent writer.
The ability to focus and problem solve are usually prized in the world of engineering. But these strengths can make an engineer susceptible to an unethical lack of imagination.
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