Licensed to Web


I recently got back from London where I was presenting at QCon. Typically I enjoy single-track events more than multi-track events, but QCon did an impressive job of curating the talks.

Each track is curated by the track hosts and speakers are all given the opportunity to take advantage of mentoring. They even had a process in place so that speakers could give a preview of their talk to other speakers and conference staff for feedback in the weeks before the event. It’s a level of care in the talk process that you don’t typically expect from larger events.

I had the privilege of closing QCon’s first ever ethics track. The whole day was full of fantastically passionate talks around the ethics of technology. Even more encouraging was that while the room was small, every single talk was packed.

Towards the end of the day all the speakers, the track hosts, and a couple of guests got on stage for a panel discussion. The discussion was lively and spirited. I was struck by how much we all agreed on the big picture, but how much less we agreed on the specific steps that we would need to start making notable improvements in our field. That makes complete sense to me. We’re at a critical junction in technology where (sadly, very late) we’re coming to grips with the broader impact of what we build. I know a lot of people, like those of us on the panel, want to fix it—the how is the tricky part.

One of the topics that we were a little divided on was the idea of regulations and licenses. Doctors must be licensed, electricians must be licensed—why not web developers. The conversation got a little cut-off due to time, but I’ve been unable to shake it since then.

Then I stumbled on a post I had missed from Mike Monteiro arguing for the same thing—some sort of licensing around design:

As professionals in the design field, a field becoming more complex by the day, it’s time that we aim for a professional level of accountability. In the end, a profession doesn’t decide to license itself. It happens when a regulatory body decides we’ve been reckless and unable to regulate ourselves. This isn’t for our sake. It’s for the sake of the people whose lives we come in contact with. We moved too fast and broke too many things.

First, let me say that I’m coming at this topic from the perspective of the web specifically. Technology is a much broader topic, of course, though I think a lot of the general concerns are similar.

I firmly agree with Mike’s statement about moving too fast and breaking too many things. In fact, there is so much in his article that I agree with. Just as was the case on the panel, we absolutely agree on the goal and the problem. The solution—in this case, licensing—is what I’m not as sold on.

My worry is that in attempting to put some sort of restriction on who gets to build for the web, we’ll end up excluding important voices in the process.

It’s not just access to consume that makes the web so great, but also access to create. So many people I know in this industry would quite likely not be here if they hadn’t been able to view source, to pop open notepad and hack together some HTML for some embarassingly bad site they wanted to make. I probably wouldn’t.

I love that feature of the web.

I love that I can sit down with my kids and teach them a little bit of markup and they can start building sites of their own, like my 9-year old building a site listing out all of her favorite books.

I love that people like Elvis Chidera, without any access to an actual computer, can build a text messaging app with some PHP, HTML and CSS on a J2ME feature phone!

Now maybe we wouldn’t lose this. Maybe we could find a way to enforce a license only for so-called “professional” work (though how we would define that in a way that enables the Elvis Chidera’s of the world to accomplish what he did is beyond me). But it’s an important consideration that makes me a little hesitant whenever the topic of licensing is brought up.

Mike also mentioned our role as gatekeepers:

We are gatekeepers, and we vote on what makes it through the gate with our labor and our counsel. We are responsible for what makes it through that gate, and out into the world. What passes through carries our seal of approval. It carries our name. We are the defense against monsters.

It’s a good point, but it’s also worth recognizing that gatekeeping isn’t always a good thing. The expensive licenses and educational requirements some other professions have help to weed out the riff-raff a bit, sure. They also make those professions prohibitively costly to many. We have to be careful with gatekeeping through licensing because it’s just as likely to weed-out the good as it is the bad. It’s a situation that, were we to go down this route, we would need to be careful to avoid.

Generally, I also wonder how realistic it is to expect licensing to help solve the issues we’re facing (and for the record, Mike never claims licensing will solve them). You don’t have to look far to find folks in all sorts of professions—cops, accountants, doctors—who are fully licensed and yet wreck terrible havoc. Licensing can help ensure a level of proficiency, but that’s not our problem. Our challenge is a matter of ethics, a matter of responsible consideration of the consequences of what we build. Skill does not equate to better ethics.

So all that said, what do I think the answer is? I’ll be honest: I have no idea.

A hippocractic oath is an interesting idea, though like the one used in the medical profession, it’s unlikely to be enforceable.

I do think a good start is to break down this idea of a “tech industry”, something Sara argued against in her book:

Ten years ago, tech was still, in many ways, a discrete industry—easy to count and quantify. Today, it’s more accurate to call it a core underpinning of every industry. As tech entrepreneur and activist Anil Dash writes, “Every industry and every sector of society is powered by technology today, and being transformed by the choices made by technologists.”

A lot of the issues we see can be traced back to this artificial separation we have put between people who build technology and the industries that technology is used in. The end result is this enthusiasm for “disruption”. This belief that the same rules don’t apply.

It would be a start, though I’d be naive to think it’s enough to fix the problem. The challenge is that this is a mess and there are no easy answers. It’s unlikely any one solution will solve all our woes. It will take a combination of things that leads to significant change.

I take hope from Ursula Franklin’s earthworm theory.

Social change will not come to us like an avalanche down the mountain. It will come through seeds growing in well prepared soil—and it is we, like the earthworms, who prepare the soil. We also seed thoughts and knowledge and concern. We realize there are no guarantees as to what will come up. Yet we do know that without the seeds and prepared soil nothing will grow at all…we need more earthworming.

Change doesn’t happen all at once nor does it come from the top-down. It comes from the accumulation of little changes, from baby steps taken by everyday people who want to make things a little better.

I agree with Mike (and so many others): we have skirted by too long without taking responsibility for what we build. As Mike said, “We moved too fast and broke too many things.” Something needs to change and I’m grateful that we’re finally having that conversation on a broader level.

And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe some sort of licensing can work. Smarter folks than I have argued for it. I have my doubts, though it’s certainly a discussion I want us to continue to have.

But I hope in our attempt to fix what is broken about technology and the web, we don’t break what isn’t. The openness of the web is one of its most important features and it’s something I hope we’re careful about defending.