Dear Lazyweb : Your thoughts on the values of software?

In two weeks, the organization that funds our grant is hosting a conference for Extension personnel. At the time that conference submissions were being bandied about, I submitted a proposal that I’ve had a kind of amorphous interest in for quite some time – the idea that software has values. My abstract submission was the kind of thing you crank out in a few minutes, with the hope that it would become more clear over time where I might go with it:

**More than a tool, software reflects organizational values **

While we most often think of our computers and networks as tools, the software that we use and create codifies a set of rules and instructions that reflect the values of the designers, the programmers, and the organizations that commission that software. In this session, we’ll explore the attributes of well known web tools and the features that reflect the values of their creators. We’ll also discuss the implications of these inherent values on the software tools created by eXtension and explore how different features represent the values of the organization and the Extension system as a whole.

However, a dash of out of sight, out of mind, and a healthy wallop of procrastination finds myself with two weeks to go and still not much clarity – and I’d like your thoughts and ideas and feedback.

I’ve certainly been thinking about this in broad strokes for a long time, and I’ve mentioned it before – highlighting a quote from Mark Pilgrim about Amazon having to have designed the software feature that let them delete 1984 from Kindles (yes, that’s going to make it into this presentation). But I’m going to need finer detailed items too. I lean toward generalities, and I’m going to have to work hard to be specific.

My Audience, and the background

My audience is mainly Extension specialists and administrative professionals in subject matter support roles. These are mainly land-grant university staff, some with faculty appointments, others involved in some amount of research (or supporting the content production of their colleagues) – most likely all with an outreach/Extension focus. A very intelligent crowd with a number of ideas about features and functionality, but not usually very much experience in technology implementation, and often with a mix of experience and skills in technology use.

It would be an understatement to say there is not universal agreement on a set of organization values – hence not really a foundation to say “these values we all hold, here’s how you might implement those” And as a technologist, I’m a bit of an outsider to the difficult process and pressures that many of my subject matter colleagues go through in the university. I can speak to them, I’m aware of them, but only really with an outsider’s view.

Additionally, the academy has ironically not been very progressive on the social changes that have occurred in technology mediated communication (built on the internet and the software that their academy colleagues – and their students (!) – created). We are behind the publishing industry. Some days it feels like we aren’t terribly different than the Recording industry. (You might be able to see where my own values lie in such statements, but I’m not intending this to be a bully pulpit for those at all).

But there’s hope. I believe that all in the room will share the educator’s value – that desire to share with others what they know in the hope that the science and the research will help other’s lives, or inspire them to learn more.

What would you convey?

If you are a software developer, or a technologist or an application user and you have the floor to speak to those using your applications, brilliant in their own fields. What would you want said about the values of the software that you create and implement?

What core ideas would you tell to a group of educators both in practice and who likely all hold education as a core value, but many that are skeptical about the technology enabled changes in the last few years?

What stories do you have about customer feature requests that often resulted in the completely opposite impact that was intended?

What would you want to hear?

Maybe this is even more important a question.

If you were hearing a presentation on the values of software – if you read that abstract and your curiosity is piqued enough to attend such a session – what would you want to hear? What are you expecting to hear?

Are there formats that you would find more interesting (believe me, I can talk for 30-45 minutes without problem, but I don’t want to do that if it doesn’t meet the audience expectations).

Inquiring minds want to know.

What Amazon’s 1984 Incident has wrought

Dear Amazon:

Here’s what you 1984 incident has wrought.

Exhibit A:

I wanted an ebook reader, I wanted a Kindle even. I’m an iPhone user of all things, I’ll compromise my DRM and sharecropping principles over a good technology package experience every time. Yet, the idea that you coded the feature that would delete books I’ve already bought? Even Apple hasn’t done that yet. I won’t be buying a Kindle, or any of your Kindle books.

Exhibit B:

My darling wife, who understands my feelings on most DRM and closed platform issues, but gets a bit bemused when I get all passionate about them, just looked a bit crestfallen when I told her that Zappos just got bought out by Amazon – she said “Really?!? but I liked Zappos

Software has values. Misusing them has consequences you would never predict.

Software has values

In light of things I’ve said before and hope to be presenting more on later this year – I want to highlight a tweet from Mark Pilgrim yesterday

“Oh, the publisher made them do it.” Bzzt. Code doesn’t just appear. Amazon DESIGNED the Kindle’s remote wipe. Someone coded it & tested it.

This is in reference to Amazon removing paid-for copies of 1984 from Kindles

Whatever the eventual debate about that will turn out to be. This is where software embodies a set of values, and the software developers code those values.

Was it a cool problem to solve to figure out how to issue a command to delete content off customer kindles? I bet. Heck, I’d be totally interested in the protocol and software design of that.

But the truth of the matter for my colleagues – and the companies in which you work – just because you can, does not mean you do.