What do we value about value?

 

Recently, many of my software research projects have boiled down to questions about value. In some senses this seems straightforward. It’s about money, isn’t it? Well, ostensibly it is yes – because it seems ‘we all know’ that when managers talk about ‘business value’ they mean improving the bottom line for the business. But, why is the word value used rather than yield or profit?

Value is not a simple concept. It only tangentially refers to finance. Even when it does there is an added aspect to it which suggests something more than simply money. It is broadly defined. It can mean importance, esteem, usefulness, benefit, good. So, when it is used it picks up all those meanings in some way. The similarity of ‘value’ to ‘values’ resonates throughout, so it is has a positive feel.

Why is this relevant to software work? It’s relevant because software has many repercussions in the real world. Reading about the recent criminal investigation into Uber in the US, is a good example. Uber has been using software known as Greyball to help it identify and avoid government officials in areas where its service was not approved (Guardian 4 March 2017). As well as doing checks to protect its drivers from harm (which seems reasonable), the software mined credit card information and social media to investigate whether the owner was in law enforcement. Uber no doubt used this to increase its value – its customer base – whilst trying to avoid being caught. Facebook has also been in the news recently for reporting to its advertisers that it can identify teenager’s mental states. Again, this will add value for Facebook in terms of revenue, but reactions to the news indicate that many people find this disturbing (Guardian 2 May 2017).

As these stories emerge it will be interesting to see what effect they’ll have. There’s no doubt that customers value honesty and transparency, and they don’t like feeling they’ve been tricked. This is particularly true when it comes to covert use of personal information. But at the same time people seem oddly inured to technology companies behaving in this way. Maybe this is because technology is novel, and there is a feeling it can’t be controlled. It would be nice if there was a wider debate about software value, and more code transparency, so that customers could start making conscious choices. Uber has had so many problems recently they may face a backlash, but Facebook seems like a juggernaut that can’t be stopped.

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