Column: The Moral Dimension of Y2K

It's now late December, and you're on your way out the door, ready to enjoy the holidays before 1999 begins. But it may be your last holiday for quite a while. For most of us in the year 2000 world, 1999 will be the year of living dangerously.

If you're working in a bank, an insurance company or a telephone company, your year 2000 project is supposed to be wrapping up its remediation efforts now.

You're supposed to be spending all of next year on testing. After all, your CEO is telling Wall Street analysts that year 2000 remediation is "substantially complete," and the chief financial officer has studiously avoided documenting any bad news in the Securities and Exchange Commission's 10-Q statement.

But from my travels across the U.S., I know that there are a lot of organizations where that rosy, optimistic outlook isn't accurate. I've listened to a number of year 2000 managers tell me, within the past few months, "There is absolutely no way we can finish in time."

The dilemma of the doomed year 2000 project, or the year 2000-remediated system being rushed into production before testing is finished, will force some of us to make some difficult ethical decisions next year. We can't abdicate responsibility for the decisions that need to be made in those year 2000 projects, even if we don't have the equivalent of a Nuremberg Trial to pass judgment on those decisions.

If year 2000 turns out to be a minor hiccup, then the Nuremberg reference will be heavy-handed. But if year 2000 turns out to have life-and-death consequences, then many of us will face the most difficult moral and ethical decisions we've ever made. We'll be hearing lots of advice from our managers, political leaders, friends and families about what we should and shouldn't do. Rather than try to tell you what you should do about your year 2000 obligations, I suggest that you read the codes of ethics compiled by the two most prestigious computing societies in the U.S.: the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. They're posted on the Internet -- at http://www.acm.org/constitution/code.html and http://www.computer.org/tab/seprof/code.htm.

They're too detailed to discuss at length here, but I'd like to list 13 of the 24 "moral imperatives" from the ACM code:

- Contribute to society and human well-being.

- Avoid harm to others.

- Be honest and trustworthy.

- Strive to achieve the highest quality, effectiveness and dignity in both the process and products of professional work.

- Acquire and maintain professional competence.

- Know and respect existing laws pertaining to professional work.

- Accept and provide professional review.

- Give comprehensive and thorough evaluations of computer systems and their impacts, including analysis of possible risks.

- Improve public understanding of computing and its consequences.

- Access computing and communication resources only when authorized to do so.

- Articulate social responsibilities of members of an organizational unit and encourage full acceptance of those responsibilities.

- Manage personnel and resources to design and build information systems that enhance the quality of working life.

- Articulate and support policies that protect the dignity of users and others affected by a computing system.

The irony is that if we computing professionals had insisted on following that code of ethics, we might have avoided the year 2000 problem altogether. But that's water under the bridge; the only relevant question is whether we intend to pay any attention to them in the remaining 383 days before the Big Day. All of us consider ourselves moral and ethical people -- it's simply a matter of which ethics we choose to embrace. I may not be able to memorize the entire ACM list, but I don't think I'll be able to live with myself in the post-year 2000 era if I can't follow at least the first three moral imperatives.

What about you? I urge you to think about this now, because if delays and problems occur with your year 2000 project, the pressure to compromise your principles may increase as we move into 1999.

(Yourdon heads the year 2000 service at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Massachusetts. His most recent book is Time Bomb 2000. His Internet address is ed@yourdon.com.)

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