April 15th, 2009


A little more on the matter of Intent

Okay, this is a brief rough breakdown of the levels of Intentionalism and culpability that can be at work in a situation like that of the ongoing AmazonFail, illustrated in terms not of complicated database technology but in the form of Accidental Deletions of Data That We Have Mostly All Known/Done Ourselves:

Type 1. Forgot To Save
This is a case of loss of data caused by what Catholics call a "sin of omission" - you should have done something that you didn't do, that you knew you should do, but you failed to do it. And the consequences, in this case, are that some random-but-not-unanticipatable event like a power flicker or a driver conflict made the computer or program crash, losing all the unsaved work. You didn't deliberately set out to waste all that time and effort, but it was your fault in so far as you could have prevented it, and did not, due to absence of mind. The non-deliberacy of the forgetfulness will not, however, reduce the ill consequences of it, up to and including being yelled at by one's employer for not saving often enough, the underlying premise being that if you have the wherewithal to be using the computer then you ought to be situationally aware enough to save as well, just like remembering to put the parking brake on if you're driving a car. (There is, of course, an equivalent of the "spelling-flame law" that means that anyone who berates someone else for forgetting to save, will themselves in short order themselves forget to save their own data and lose work, which ought to be an encouragement to mercy in the karma-dharma equation - particularly since such forgetfulness is exacerbated by short deadlines and other top-down stressors like people shouting "Where's that ad?" every five minutes - but almost never is. Hint: pointing out that if the company had invested in a $50 surge-supressor/battery-backup unit for the production department this wouldn't have happened, however true, never goes over well.)

Type 2. Your Hand Slipped/You Weren't Paying Attention
Here we have a little more agency, in that when this happens you have to have done something - it isn't simply something that occurs because you were passive - but it isn't a mindful action, or at least not fully. You didn't mean to delete that file, but your hand slipped, you clicked the wrong folder or you hit "OK" without being fully cognizant of what you were saying "OK" to, due to distraction or hurry. So yes, you did it - nobody came along and grabbed your hand and forced you to click in such a way as to delete that stuff - but you didn't mean to and you weren't trying to, it was a mistake caused by, essentially, the same sort of lack of situational awareness that caused the Type 1 class of data loss.

The consequences, and the level of culpability, are equal imo, though the level of trouble you get in for it (if you answer to someone else in your pixel-pushing duties) may vary depending on whether or not your superior is more confident about their file-saving impeccability or their non-error-making status. (Hint: saying "Do you seriously think I deliberately wasted all this time and headache and deleted my work on purpose? Is that what you're accusing me of?" when asked shouted at, "Why did you delete that?" in the case of such an accident, won't help, strictly speaking - but if you're dealing with such a boss to begin with, it probably can't make things any worse.)

Type 3. You Didn't Understand The Ramifications of Your Action/s
This is where questions of intent get a little sticky - I call this the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" scenario, and yes, it is what Amazon is (alternately, between saying it was policy implementation) claiming happened. (I do think, btw, it is what happened, but on a much larger scale than Amazon is admitting.)

Here is an illustrative case history, a real one, which happened ironically enough at a mail-order book and gift company I used to work for. The company was very small and the computer network likewise tiny, and there wasn't anything to keep anyone who was on the network from moving files around or deleting them, except common sense, which was not always abundant. So it turned out that one day, a whole bunch of occasionally-referred-to spreadsheets tracking years of customer purchasing data no longer worked - when opened, they were full of error messages instead of calculated figures. Likewise, a whole bunch of layout files no longer worked, because the linked graphics were all 404'd.

After a lot of unpleasant accusations of the usual (female) scapegoats, it turned out that one of the bright boys in Marketing had decided to reorganize the server in a way that he thought was more intuitive, because he was having a hard time remembering where he had saved his project notes the previous day when he started up in the morning. --No, he hadn't thought to ask anyone else if there would be a problem doing this. No, he hadn't known that it would destroy all the existing links between various kinds of files residing on the server. --No, he didn't know exactly what it was that he had done, or how it had all been, before he screwed it up. --No, he didn't remember exactly when it was he had done this (it only became apparent when someone else needed to use those other occasionally-referenced files) and so there was the wonderful choice of trying to guess the most recent date before the fiasco and restore from a backup, thereby losing all the data that had been entered since, or of reconstructing it all and trying to hook up the links so it all worked again.

Now, Bright Boy in Marketing hadn't deliberately fubar'd the network, in that he didn't mean to wreck all the years of order tracking data nor the archived prepress files - but he did a) take deliberate, mindful</i> action that caused that result, to benefit himself, b) with complete disregard for said side-effects because he was so ignorant that he didn't know there even could be any side-effects, and so arrogant that it didn't occur to him that he ought to ask the network administrator or other regular system users whose tenure predated him by years. We didn't have the term "Dunning-Kruger Effect" back then, but we did have lots of stories about kids dropping things off highway overpasses and so on, to illustrate this sort of behavior.

The issue of culpability here is already complicated - BB didn't mean to wreck all this work we had done when he thrashed around the server like a bull in a china shop, but he did choose to do it, and he had no concern for how it might affect anyone else, which is the definition of "reckless," is it not? But then he in a sense embraced the destruction, by not being very remorseful at all about it, and not even seeing fully why it was a problem, since after all he was not directly affected by the damaged files which he hadn't known existed, and wasn't going to be the one tasked with putting them back together either. It wasn't his time that was wasted, and while as a marketing dude he ought to have been concerned and worse, he wasn't.

So the consequence of this, to my mind, was to proclaim that the only result of this that bothered him was getting in trouble by the boss (who no, did not yell at him as much as he had yelled at us office girls when he thought it was our screwup that was responsible - yeah, I'm still pissed off, milestone #--? in my journey to radical feminism) and thus that he might as well have trashed all our work deliberately, so far as moral culpability went. (This is called "imperfect contrition" in the Catholic system, by-the-by: you're only "sorry" because you're afraid of justice & punishment, not because you regret the harm you did to others. Dogma says it's better than nothing, but I'm not so sure myself.)

Now, the company should have had some sort of system in place that would have kept this from happening. No question about it. But we were a tiny company, all DIY, less than a dozen people at the time, and it never occurred to the boss that someone would be stupid enough to rearrange/rename/merge/delete a bunch of common folders and data files on the network without asking just because it suited their fancy. We weren't a massive multi-national corporation with dedicated computer staff and the funds to have more than a bunch of mostly-second-hand DOS boxes and assorted PCs strung together by a series of kludges. And the data affected at the time was not something that could have any direct impact on our customers: it was strictly in-house archives, not a matter of public confidence in the company.

And to BB's credit, he did not, as far as I can recall, try to cover up that he was the one who'd done it - mostly because he didn't think that he'd done anything to be ashamed of, to be sure - but when he put 2+2 together and realized that his actions could have been responsible for the data loss and flurries of panic going on around him, he did the "Ohshit, maybe it was me" thing promptly. Which made it a little easier to figure out what the hell had happened, and to stop worrying about a corrupt hard drive or a virus and start trying to restore the system. If he'd stonewalled about it, it would have been a whole lot worse.

On the other hand, the fact that he never did seem to "get" why it was that what he'd done was wrong, meant that we never could feel really safe about him and our data, who were answerable for it, thereafter. I don't know if "Malign Indifference" is a term of law, like "Malign Neglect", but that was what he gave off, like someone who stomps through your garden without asking why the ground is tilled and there are little tags in the ground, or throws out the contents of an attic without asking the other householders if any of the stuff is theirs - the fact that they didn't intend to specifically kill the sprouts or destroy an heirloom isn't an exoneration, whereas someone who accidentally tripped and fell into the garden, or set the house on fire, has wreaked just as much destruction but is not morally responsible (fwiw) - unless they "double-down" and refuse contrition for it.

So, anyway, a logic-chopper's take on the whole "stop being so MEAN to poor little Amazon, it was just an ACCIDENT!" aspect...