A Socially Responsible Software Company Part One: The Unexamined Life is not Worth Living

Actually, Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” But I think we should apply the same logic to companies — and not just because they are legal “persons” 😉

At Rhiza, we’ve always tried to be a responsible company. But what does that really mean? My background is in computer science and philosophy. It’s not that weird a combination. Both disciplines search for rules to make sense of the world with, and both have a (sometimes unfortunate) weakness for pedantic precision. So I have a natural tendency to want to clarify and systematize.

What I want to do here is to explore the definition of a socially responsible software company, or, at least, start a process for arriving at the definition.

Right now I have some intuitions, some things I think we’ve gotten right so far, and a lot of questions. The questions are probably the most important part. If this is a topic that interests you, please leave a comment. I’m also going to the Social Venture Network conference next week. I expect it to provide a firehose of relevant information (and if you’re going to be there, come find me and we’ll chat).

I’m also hoping to get some other folks at Rhiza to weigh in with their opinions. Here is a non-exhaustive and possibly wildly off-the-mark list of topics we may be discussing in this space over the coming days and weeks:

  • Doing good for your employees. Frankly, I’m not sure this is “socially responsible” — it may just be enlightened self-interest! (Then again, maybe those two things aren’t so far apart.) Anyway, we have a lot of cool policies involving flex-time and working from home and babies in the office. But what else could we be doing? And how do we balance the demands of a start-up? Does success require a level of intensity that compromises other aspects of life? Or is that a false choice?
  • Being green. There’s a lot of interesting technical complexity wrapped up in this one. Our office is LEED certified; how meaningful is that? Is hosting web-based software in the cloud more or less green than other strategies? Does it matter which cloud you pick? Should we encourage people to work from home and save the carbon, even if productivity takes a hit?
  • Are some products inherently more responsible than others? Loads of potential controversy here! Some people think video games are bad for you, others extol their benefits. Fortunately, I can dodge that one since we don’t make video games. But you get the point: are there things we could put into or take out of our product that make it intrinsically more responsible? Or is it all a matter of perspective? Since our tools help people make data-based decisions, as a rationalist I like to think that the tools are intrinsically good. But maybe some would disagree.
  • Customers! Must socially responsible companies worry about whether their customers are doing good? Is the answer different if you’re selling a one-size-fits-all product or if you’re doing custom work? Again, I am sure this is fraught with controversy.
  • Open source software. There’s a big part of the geek community that thinks one of the most socially responsible things you can do as a programmer is to contribute to open source software. But there are obvious competitive implications for companies who do that. Can a balance be managed? And, assuming you are convinced that open source is the way to go, which of the zillions of licenses should you choose (and why)?

Okay. Enough questions. Write thoughts, send links, come find me (or Josh or Maryl) next week if you are in Philly. What do you think makes a company socially responsible? What would you like to see us do? Finally, I’ll bookend with another quote (from Upton Sinclair), just to remind us why these questions can be hard to think about:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!

2 thoughts on “A Socially Responsible Software Company Part One: The Unexamined Life is not Worth Living

  1. Good questions, Mike. I completely agree with your concluding quote – this goes for me with “Knowing right from wrong is often easy – the hard part is doing right instead of wrong when it’s not in your immediate best interest!” You could get that from Kant’s sense of “duty”, and probably from any number of religious traditions as well.

    In personal relationships, we proceed quite quickly to say that doing good is in your long term best interests because “what goes around comes around”, or something like that. In a simple game, I understand that this has been demonstrated in many “prisoner’s dilemma” simulations (described in Matt Ridley’s “The Origins of Virtue”).

    But for corporations, we often don’t make this argument nearly as strongly as the more cutthroat claim, “if you play any nicer than your competitors, they’ll cut you to pieces”.

    SO, I wonder why “what goes around comes around” sounds so much more obvious for people than for companies?

  2. Did you ever read Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation?” It describes computer tournaments of the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma and demonstrates the soundness of cooperative strategies. (As an aside, I tried to write a genetic algorithm to demonstrate the result in high school, but it didn’t replicate the finding. I think it was a combination of poor game encoding on my part and starting the IPD from a sea of actors with what amounted to random strategies — against an opponent who behaves randomly, pure defection is your best bet, and that’s what evolved in my test.)

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