New technologies are revolutionizing the world, but is it what the world needs?

Need of value, value of need: the benefits of discreet software engineering.

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The French version is available here

There is no longer any room for doubt: we are now living in the world of tomorrow. Our artificial intelligences are imagining unprecedented works of art, our surgeons can operate 5,000 kilometers away, and our lectures can be given in an ancient Greek agora in the metaverse.

However, within our society, it seems difficult to determine whether this world of tomorrow is desirable or not. On the one hand, one camp believes that new technologies will lead society into an age of prosperity and abundance. On the other, these same technologies are seen as risks of alienation that will lead us towards collapse. Yet anyone who has taken an introductory course in software engineering can see that this dilemma is not a dilemma at all, and that the question is, in fact, badly framed. Little known to the general public, the term software engineering refers to all the working methods and best practices of engineers who develop software. Contrary to the myth of the two coders/prodigies revolutionizing the world from their garage, this discipline, which has been constantly evolving since the 70s, offers a body of knowledge enabling teams of computer scientists with varied profiles (from the most technical to the most managerial) to understand each other, collaborate and build reliable and satisfying IT systems.

And when we discover software engineering, we invariably come across one of the 7 fundamental principles laid down by David Hooker in 1996: remember why we do what we do. This principle goes even further in defining this “why”: to provide value to those who will use the system developed.

Creating value

Creating value for a user means first and foremost addressing their needs. Thus, the essence of software engineering is problem solving: a person or organization encounters organizational or logistical problems, and software engineers will analyze this problem, identify the needs and propose a software solution (a computer system) that fully (or partially) addresses the problem.

Conversely, creating needs only generates value for those who have something to sell. It can even lead to a loss of value for the user. Let’s take the example of shopping in a supermarket… in the metaverse! Equipped with a virtual reality headset and a joystick that poorly emulates the experience of a prehensile limb, the user can grab products, manipulate them and throw them into his virtual cart. While this experience may seem playful and innovative at first glance, the illusion of a value proposition for the user quickly collapses if we confront it with the real needs of a person shopping online: quick access to information, being able to interrupt and resume shopping easily, adding an item to your basket the moment you realize it’s missing from the cupboard, and so on.

Between technolatry and technophobia

This is not to say that virtual reality is inherently bad or useless. It simply means that this particular use case brings no added value to the user, because it’s not aligned with his or her real needs. So, somewhere between the technolatrist and the technophobe, there is a more harmonious position that sees information technology as a means of improving our society, our businesses and our daily lives. But maintaining this position is only possible if we recognize that digital technology is not an end in itself. If the appearance of a new technology always has an exhilarating side that stimulates the imagination and gives rise to an infinite number of possibilities, filtering these possibilities to keep only those that are really worthwhile is crucial. And to do this, all we need to do is keep in mind a simple principle enunciated in 1996: remember why we do what we do.

Benoît Vanderose
Benoît Vanderose
Assistant Professor of Software Engineering