As a tool maker, how responsible are you for how people use your tools?

It’s a difficult question with a lot of valid points of view. Take Michael Osinski – he was a successful software engineer on Wall Street from the 80s to the 90s – and according to him – helped write software that enabled the current financial crisis:

…I wrote the software that turned mortgages into bonds.

…The software proved to be more sophisticated than the people who used it, and that has caused the whole world a lot of problems.

I never would have thought, in my most extreme paranoid fantasies, that my software, and the others like it, would have enabled Wall Street to decimate the investments of everyone in my family. Not even the most jaded observer saw that coming. I can’t deny that it allowed a privileged few to exploit the unsuspecting many. But catastrophe, depression, busted banks, forced auctions of entire tracts of houses? The fact that my software, over which I would labor for a decade, facilitated these events is numbing.

Our software was rolled out to ride the latest wave. Traders loved it. What had taken days before now took minutes. They could design bonds out of bonds, to provide the precise rate of return that an investor wanted. I used to go to the trading floor and watch my software in use amid the sea of screens. A programmer doesn’t admire his creation so much for what it does but for how it does it. This stuff was beautiful and elegant.

The aim of software is, in a sense, to create an alternative reality. After all, when you use your cell phone, you simply want to push the fewest buttons possible and call, text, purchase, listen, download, e-mail, or browse. The power we all hold in our hands is shocking, yet it’s controlled by a few swipes of a finger. The drive to simplify the user’s contact with the machine has an inherent side effect of disguising the complexity of a given task. Over time, the users of any software are inured to the intricate nature of what they are doing. Also, as the software does more of the “thinking,” the user does less.

Last month, my neighbor, a retired schoolteacher, offered to deliver my oysters into the city. He had lost half his savings, and his pension had been cut by 30 percent. The chain of events from my computer to this guy’s pension is lengthy and intricate. But it’s there, somewhere. Buried like a keel in the sand. If you dive deep enough, you’ll see it. To know that a dozen years of diligent work somehow soured, and instead of benefiting society unhinged it, is humbling. I was never a player, a big swinger. I was behind the scenes, inside the boxes.

Those are some choice quotes from his piece in New York Magazine. Read the whole thing.

His story raises many powerful, deep questions about what we do, who we do it for, why we do it, and repercussions. It was courageous, even if I don’t necessarily agree. I tend to believe that software does not change human nature – but there are people in the industry who swear that what we do is literally changing mankind. If so – should they be looking in the mirror? Should we all?

This post is participating in @weeklyblogpost: week8: tools. Checkout other posts there about the topic and feel free to join in.