An essay by Marc Santoro.

Version 1.0
Version 1.1
Some clarifications

After examining Kohlberg's model of moral development, and noting striking similarities between it and the development of computer users (and admins) relating to their skill, I have come up with this model of technical development. While Kohlberg's model is nonvariant, this model may not be -- because people may get interested in computing with various levels of cognitive power and background. I would suggest that the model to be treated as nonvariant, with the understanding that sufficiently mature and intelligent individuals can progress through the first phase very quickly (in a matter of days or weeks).

Kohlbergs model has three phases -- the Pre-Conventional, the Conventional, and the Post-Conventional. Each phase has two levels.

The Pre-Conventional phase occurs when the individual's moral code (or skill set) comes from a primary educational source. This may be elementary school, or from TV shows about the internet, or any computer book you can find at Barnes & Nobles.

In the first level, the "Obedience and Punishment" phase, a person learns that certain actions -- corresponding to obedience, lead to favorable results, and that disobediant actions lead to negative results, such as punishment. This is akin to the computer novice who learns that by following instruction manuals, he is often left with a working piece of hardware or software, but when deviating, he kills his system. These are also the people who buy the overpriced "home installation" services many computer retailers offer. This is also a negative stage many novice programmers enter, where the looming threat of syntax errors and crashes deturs them from exploring the possibilities of the programming language.

The second level is the "Instrumentalism and Exchange" level. Essentially, this level is like a barter system. The individual engages primarily in actions which cause a favorable reaction, and provides favorable reactions when acted upon favorably. This corresponds to computer users who have learned to use their computer for a specific set of tasks, but are fearful of deviating outside of this comfort zone. People like this play video games and use the internet, and maybe some word processing -- but their fear of pushing comfort zones limits their growth.

The Conventional phase is the phase most of society is in. Mostly the individual begins to recognize his place in society, and develops a moral code in terms of how the world reacts to him.

The third level is the "Interpersonal Conformity" level. Essentially, people conform to the standards set by their peers. If everyone around you steals cars, you too will steal cars. This corresponds to computer users who are obsessed with playing the most recent video games, with the latest outrageously expensive hardware. This is also the stage at which many people join User Groups. Also, the importance of computer standards is first realized at this level. Some people pretend to be systems administrators at this level, but they do this mostly to improve their appearance in their peers eyes. In addition, many programmers and admins do very stupid things to their system to make them look more "1337". Being "1337" is very important to them.

The fourth level is the "Law and Order" level. Essentially, this is similar to the first level in which a person tries to be obedient to avoid punishment. However, the source and reaction to punishment differs: Since punishment is seen as coming from the collective community, a sense of justice is very important. This corresponds to computer users who, as a member of a larger community, play by the rules to obtain benefits. People who frequent (and do not troll upon) online forums, bulletin boards, and Usenet may be here -- particularly those who have a strong sense of netiquette in addition to a speck of clue. Authority figures are very important, as is the status quo (or state of the network). Many people hit a relativistic period during this level, in which disobedience becomes extremely important. When these people understand what they are doing, we call them "trolls".

The Post-Conventional phase is not reached by most people. It marks a change in the the thought processes: In particular the individual recognizes the causality of his actions.

Computer "clue" comes into play here -- it refers to a fundamental intelligence and sort of "common sense" among computer users. If a person possesses true "clue", he may very well fall into one of these levels. Wisdom is almost analagous to this mysterious "clue".

The fifth level is the "Social Contract" level. People here understand how they influence the nature of reality, and their interrelationship and interdependancy with the world. In particular, clued system administrators and system programmers lie here. These people have a magic-like ability to make drastic changes to something, and keep it working all-throughout. In addition, these people can (and do) provide immense documented justification for any decision they make.

The sixth and final level is the "Universalism" level. Interdependance becomes paramount in decision-making, and a universal moral code is promoted. Essentially, the prime factor in making a decision is the universal impact of such an action -- one example might be a system administrator asking himself if all system administrators could do this (and not lose their jobs or upset anyone). In addition, people here have an intense understanding of how the lower levels interact, and how they are all important to the well-being of things. Indeed, a sysadmin or programmer at this level might convincingly pretend he is at a lower level, to better the system.

This page is linked from: Marc Santoro