Now that the technology sector of the world is rapidly transforming all of the world’s things into digital things, many have called for more ethics in our field. That is in many instances quite a vague goal, so let’s apply it to one part of digital: front-end development. How can we be more ethical as front-end developers, what kinds of things can we do? I thought I’d try and make a list.
I don’t know what is good for us. I mean, I have ideas about that, but this post is not about those ideas, it is about what kinds of things front-end developers can think about if they want to apply ethics to our field.
What and why
In my talk for Inclusive Design 24, I said that ethics is about how we want our world shaped. But ethics has many definitions, another one is that it answers the question ‘what should I do?’ In that question, note the word ‘should’. It’s about what you’re obliged to do. It also implies taking a moral stance and choosing between different paths. It is about coming up with reasons based on what is considered the right thing, based on a set of rules. An example of such a rule is ‘only act according to rules that you would want to apply to everyone’ (said Kant). And there is The Golden Rule: treat others as you would want to be treated.
The ethics described above is roughly what the literature would refer to as duty-based ethics, it is based on the idea of a moral obligation. There is also consequence-based ethics. Consequentialists look at the outcome of their decisions and actions. They consider how decisions or actions impact the world, for example whether they increase or decrease the total amount of happiness in the world. It doesn’t matter how you get to an increase of total happiness, it matters that you do.
When trying to apply ethics to technology, it should be fine to be pragmatic and combine both approaches. Do things because they are right and do (or leave) things because of their consequences.
The reason that ethics can make an important contribution to the web is its focus on why and how we do things rather than just what we are doing. That focus has the unique chance to make our choices more human, because arguably without ethics we could just leave our decision making to machines. It takes a human to make ethical decisions, said the awesome Laura Kalbag. Thinking ethically about decisions also makes them more human. It works both ways.
Tim Berners-Lee already talked about how ethics is important for the web at the first WWW conference in 1994. He describes this in his book Weaving the web (2000, 86):
I finished by pointing out that, like scientists, people in the Web development community had to be ethically and morally aware of what they were doing
This, about the origins of the Web, is recommended reading, by the way. Don’t judge it by its cover design…
Ethics is important for everyone who makes things for the web: people working on design, product and management. But also for front-end developers. We drive a lot of how modern web products are built and uniquely know of weird details and consequences of products decisions. If ethics is about consequences, we are part of it. So let’s worry about what decisions are made. Rather than just using our expertise to build products, we can think about decisions and then build products. Because it is also our duty and we can help increase (or not decrease) total happiness in the world.
Ok, so do I just
npm install ethics?
Admittedly, I’m stretching it a bit, but I would like to show what ethics is not. I should stress that ethics can’t be just added to something that exists, it has to be in the decision process before. Automating ethics won’t work either, trying to do it would also sort of miss the point of ethics. Package managers like
npm can install most things that a web project could possibly depend on, but it should be clear by now that ethics is not one of them. Computers can automatically foresee consequences sometimes, they can use statistical analysis see how big your JS bundle will be. Or, more real-world, use facial recognition to see that someone is cheating on their partner. But the point is, ethics is the assessment that can start after metrics like these. It requires humans.
There are plenty of situations in our jobs where we can apply ethical thinking to what we do. Let’s look at some real-world examples.
Front-end developer impact
The web is accessible by default, but as a developer it’s easy to break that in the flow of getting features shipped. I sometimes do this myself, and I specialise in accessibility. There are ways to improve though, for example by focusing (part of) your personal development on learning about making accessible products. By being aware of how to meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and generally accessibility good practices, you can directly contribute to letting more people enjoy the web through code.
Analytics with Do Not Track
You’re asked to implement trackers in a site. You are aware that technically, this will allow some megacorporation to spy on people. You are also aware that modern browsers support Do Not Track. It will likely be your choice to honour your user’s Do Not Track settings, and otherwise your duty to convince the people in the company who prefer more metrics over more valuing user preferences. Or maybe you research a way to completely anonomise the data. This combines duty and consequences.
Impact on society at large
This is a more general example, applying to what you work on and where you choose to work. There’s a degree of ‘but not everyone is so privileged that they have choice’ to this, but I still believe we can all choose to some degree. When working as a front-end developer, it is likely that what you work on will somehow shape the world, sometimes even disrupt it. Should you build the front-end for a product that ‘disrupts’ an industry, but also introduces more inequality and makes the lives of other people harder?
Code of conducts in open source
If you released some of your code as an open source project and it attracted a bit of a community around it, considering community values would make a huge difference. Things like how you want people to feel empowered to make suggestions, feel included in the community, participate and show empathy to each other. A Code of Conduct (for example, a
CODE_OF_CONDUCT.MD) could help make these values explicit, and heck, you could even npm install one (just note that this only adds value if you also have a plan for getting incidents reported and responding to them).
Diversity in hiring
As a front-end developer you may sometimes be involved in hiring new team members. This is also a great opportunity to influence how the world is shaped: be aware of possible biases in order to give good recommendations to HR.
Recognising dark patterns
If you don’t like to be tricked into buying services you don’t actually need or want, then your users likely feel the same. Learn to recognise dark patterns and start the discussion if you’re asked to implement one.
Keeping users secure
By being aware of common security risks we can ensure our users are safer online. Most of the responsibilities fall within front-end (and back-end) development scope. The Golden Rule applies here: if you surf the web as a consumer, you would also like the developer who has built the site to have done so securely.
These are all things where an ethical attitude and contemplating why and how we do things can be helpful in creating a better web. They’re not all easy things, some of them are hard to get right. But if we’re going to play a role in making all the things digital things, let’s do it responsibly.
As front-end devs, we can apply ethics to our work by having an ethical mindset when doing our work. Practically we could do this by applying the Golden Rule and thinking about consequences of our code for users and our colleagues, for example by ensuring accessibility, security and a safe and welcoming working environment.