VW Scandal and Software Ethics

The news that the VW scandal caused nearly 1m tonnes of extra pollution raises some serious ethical issues for the software industry. It’s hard to imagine that people coded and tested this functionality without understanding what they were doing was illegal.

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3 Responses to VW Scandal and Software Ethics

  1. We were discussing this at work and it sounds like a massive culture failure at the company. So many people must have known about this that it’s almost impossible to claim it happened low down in the hierarchy.

    When the management start to decide to fiddle things (or get told from below that it’s possible and agree to let it happen) the whole culture of the company gets skewed into believing that it’s either right or “not very wrong” and people stop questioning it.

    I think it’s similar to what happened with the MPs expenses scandal. Such behaviour becomes normalised in the culture that nobody really notices it until it gets exposed.

  2. John P. says:

    It’s been several years since I had a company car, but when I did I recall there was a discount on the tax if it met a certain EU emissions standard. So the next thing will be people getting letters from the taxman demanding more money because the car they thought was meeting the standard wasn’t. Kerching!

  3. Colum Paget says:

    # I think it’s similar to what happened with the MPs expenses scandal.
    # Such behaviour becomes normalised in the culture that nobody really
    # notices it until it gets exposed.

    This is what I call ‘moral bubbles’. We’ve seen similar in the banking world and in sci-fi fandom too: requires_hate was a moral bubble, once enough people said that what she was doing was acceptable people acted as though it was true. In more corporate settings the argument might be that “everyone’s doing it”, “the regulators know we’re doing this, it’s all part of the game”. The difference though is that companies are under tremendous pressure to do this kind of thing, they are required to deliver profits to shareholders, and the shareholders carry no responsiblity for what’s done to deliver profits. Companies similarly try to pass responsiblity on to employees, by creating rules that employees must sign up to, but which they must break in order to keep their job (e.g. you cannot miss-sell PPI, but unless you make this many sales a week, you’re out the door: this creates a culture where everyone miss-sells, and thinks it’s okay because everyone else is doing it).

    Another characteristic of moral bubbles is silencing of dissenting voices. People who objected to VW’s tricks were no doubt encouraged to seek career opportunities elsewhere. In SF anyone who objects to the dominant political orthodoxy is labelled racist/misogynistic/homophobic/gamergate-affiliated until they shut up or go away. Eventually this creates a morally homogeneous community that can be lead anywhere.

    The only way to prevent this happening is to change the culture, but this can’t happen with companies. The culture needs changing at the shareholder level, and there’s no way of doing that. Worse, companies are in a dawinistic survival struggle under which a company cheating and getting away with it has a competitive advantage over those that don’t. So everyone has to cheat.

    Sci-fi could change it’s culture, but it won’t. The corruption in SF these days is driven by the extremes of left-wing ideology (unless you’re on the SF right (rabid puppies etc), where I assume the same thing is happening due to extremes of right-wing ideology, or though I’m not 100% sure that’s the case). Too many people in SF are too deeply wedded to the ideology and won’t give it up, they will instead find someone/something else to blame. Thus nothing really changes.

    Thus we will see more and more moral bubbles in future in industry, finance and culture. The only choice is not to be caught up in one yourself: moral bubbles always burst.