My recent foray into publicly declaring my support for a refresh of the UK’s Trident missile capability has got me thinking once again about personal morality and the ethics of the defense industry.
Working in this industry, it could be said that my job is dependent on the existence of war, or at least the threat of it. And, you know, War Is Bad. So that’s not exactly a great situation. If war became a complete implausibility, I would lose my job but humanity would be vastly better off as a whole.
However, that’s not going to happen. Realistically, no chance, but even theoretically – human brains seem to thrive on a ‘them and us’ mentality. From chavs and emo kids fighting in the school playground, to us and whichever group of brown people we’re bombing this week, that kind of mindset drives us to conflict. You and I, we can raise our mental view above that and see wars and playground scuffles for how stupid they often are. But can society as a whole? (Incidentally, I don’t mean that other individual members of society can’t do this and that you and I are special – far from it. I’m referring to our society itself, often quite a different beast than the people that comprise it.)
To eradicate war completely would be changing what it is to be human, and there’s no way to do that on the scale of millennia, let alone years. Attempting it is well within the realm of dystopian science fiction, far removed from reality.
With war inevitable, I feel no guilt for my profession – it’s not as if, if we all resigned tomorrow and found ourselves other jobs, we’d all go over and hug al-Qaeda and ride off into the sunset on sparkly unicorns.
Did I grow up wanting to be in defense? Hell no – I explicitly decided at about age 10 that I really, really didn’t want to be an engineer. Whoops.
Do I specifically want to be in the defense industry now? No, I’m pretty much indifferent. But when I look around at the alternatives, they just don’t stand a chance.
What do I want to be when I grow up? Assuming I should leave out the virtually impossible (best-selling novelist, Michelin-starred chef) and the still monumentally unlikely possibility of becoming extremely rich through sheer geekery a la Bill Gates, I’ll pick this:
I want to make users delighted.
I want users to sit down in front of a computer, or pick up a phone, or sit at the controls for an autonomous vehicle, whatever, and think “this feels great.” “This looks great.” I want them to use software I’ve created and think “this device is so complex, how can using it be this easy?” “I’m doing what should be such a boring task, how on Earth am I enjoying this?”
What jobs are available locally?
I could work in finance, porting some vitally important COBOL app to VB.net for a £10k pay rise and a 90% loss of sanity. I could do embedded telecoms stuff, never delighting users, only annoying them when it fails.
Or I could create some good-looking, usable control systems for autonomous vehicles. Then blast around the harbour at 40 knots in a boat I helped to build.
Sure, in a war-free utopia I’d be handed my P45 on day one. But while nothing we can do will achieve that utopia, I can find nothing wrong with being one of those rare people that loves their job and is all the happier because of it.