OOP 2014: Martin Fowler’s Unexpected Pitch

I attended SIGS DATACOMM OOP 2014 last week in Munich, Germany. I passed on the German language sessions – my high school Deutsch not sufficiently wunderbar – but among the English language sessions was the keynote from Martin Fowler.

All software developers will immediately recognize Fowler’s name as one of the fathers of modern software development, and in particular, of the Agile movement – and the first part of his talk on refactoring didn’t disappoint. But it was the second half of his keynote I found the most notable.

He took this opportunity in front of a sympathetic crowd of around 500 developers, mostly male and mostly German, to exhort the crowd against the dangers of dark patterns. Dark patterns, for the uninitiated, represent the production of intentionally deceptive software. After all, someone has to code all those phishing attacks and porn sites full of crapware. Fowler figures some of these developers are in the audience, and he wants them to stop.

Fowler’s cause is noble to be sure. The last thing we need in this world are more spam or online scams or deceptive Web sites. And certainly if there were any developers in the room considering a career in such dark patterns, or perhaps already embarking in such a career, Fowler’s evangelism might cause an engineer or two to reconsider the error of his (or her) ways.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe Fowler’s efforts will make any difference. There is simply too much money in dark patterns. After all, true black hat hacking consists of going over to the dark side, and whether the hacker’s motivation is economic or political, the moralizing of one thought leader won’t compensate for such motivations.

But what about the borderline cases? Those presumably young, impressionable developers who might get sucked into a career of building better spam engines or what have you, if not for the proselytizing of one authority figure they respect and admire? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The lure of dark patterns is too great. If we’re ever going to find a successful way to fight hackers, malware, crapware, adware, and all the other forces of the dark side we’ll need more than a handful of leaders showing the impressionable masses the way to the light.

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