The Creator’s Burden

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I was talking to a software engineer at an industry event a couple of weeks ago. The conversation drifted to what happens to a product after it’s released. I asked:

“Do you ever think about how the products we create will impact the people who use it?”
“Definitely. At (fill in company name here), our top priority is meeting our customer’s needs. We have whole departments who focus on that.”
“Okay – I hear you, but do you think about it personally? I mean, as engineers, it is our hands that do the work, so aren’t we ultimately responsible for what we design and the effect it has on others?”
“Well, you could say that. It’s just that at (fill in company name here), we are always trying to out-innovate our competitors. That’s what we hear from management, so that’s what we focus on.”

That last statement stuck with me well beyond the end of the event. I know (from first hand experience) that the continual message any engineer receives from his employer is “Innovate!”. “Add new features.” “Make it bigger/smaller, faster/lighter/cheaper.” “Beat the competitor.”. Even in college, engineers are regularly pitted against their classmates to design a better solution. The pressure can be pretty intense. On top of that, engineers tend to judge themselves by their ability to come up with the “best” solution. There is an innate drive among many engineers to one-up each other. The combination of the external pressure to outdo other companies and internal pressure to outdo each other tends to leave many engineers with a sense of short-sightedness. We frequently don’t do in-depth thinking about what happens to our creations beyond the final release date. Knowing this, I think its fair to ask:
What impact does all this “innovation” have on the end-user?
On communities?
On societies?
How will my creation impact the relationships between the people who use it?
Within families?

Keep in mind – I’m not talking about meeting regulatory, environmental, or safety requirements. I’m talking about other factors that are just as important, but harder to quantify.

Are today’s software engineers, hardware engineers, product designers, and computer scientists responsible for what they create?

From a Christian standpoint, the answer to this question can be found in Scripture. While there are multiple relevant passages, a key example for this discussion is Jeremiah 18:1-10. Here, God sends His prophet Jeremiah to a pottery workshop, and tells him to await His message. While at the workshop, Jeremiah observes the potter shaping and re-shaping clay on the pottery wheel (v. 1-5). At this point God, speaks to Jeremiah:

(v.6) He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.”

Ever since Genesis 12:1-3 when God first spoke to Abraham, the descendants of Abraham have been known as God’s Chosen People. From Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob (Israel), He was continually involved in their lives. God did not start the ball rolling with Abraham and walk away. In verse 6, God reminds Jeremiah that the future of the people of Israel is still in His capable hands. He is still actively involved in He started with Abraham.

God’s actions here are very instructive for engineers. We cannot simply stop paying attention to the products we create after the project ends. As people who bring ideas into reality, we must stay informed about the impact of our creations are having on the world.

The lesson continues in the remaining verses:

(v.7) If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.

In verses 7-10, God explains to Jeremiah how He evaluates and responds to a nation He has created. If a sinful nation repents of its evil, God will not dispense punishment on it. Conversely, God states that He will reconsider the good planned for a nation if the people sin and do not obey Him. Here – God shows that He does not simply stay informed about the things he creates. He acts based on what He sees. If His creation is not fulfilling its intended purpose, He responds. In the same way, we engineers must not only know the impact our creations are having on the world. We must act on what we learn. If we see that the products we create are having a negative impact on society, we must act.

This leads to what I call the Creator’s Burden. With both the advanced tools and intellectual gifts we have been given, we designers, engineers, and programmers are free to create anything our minds can conceive. And as a result of this freedom, there has been an explosion of new technologies, devices, and services in the past 20 years that has literally changed the world. But with that freedom, we must also accept the burden of keeping watch over our creations and their impact on the world around us. And if we learn that something we have created is having a negative impact on the world, then it’s our job to fix it.

It’s not Marketing’s job.
It’s not the job of the Sales Department.
It’s not your boss’s job.
The responsibility rests with us – the creators.

Let me know if you agree (or disagree) in the comments!!!

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