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Values Embodied in Information and Communication Technologies
E58.2295 (Also, Computer Science G22.3033-013)
Mondays, 4:55 - 7:05 pm
Spring 2009
Helen Nissenbaum, Department of Media, Culture, and Communication

Virtually every aspect of contemporary life is touched by computing, information technology, and digital media. They mediate much private and public communication, transaction, and social interaction, forming the infrastructure for critical societal institutions including commerce, banking and finance, governance, utilities, national defense, education, social networking, political campaigning, and entertainment. Stepping back from some of the details, this course considers social, political, and ethical implications of information and digital communications systems—networked and standalone--evaluating how they promote or impede values, such as freedom, privacy, justice and autonomy, to which we, individually and as societies are committed.
          The course follows two tracks. The first takes us through a literature of social commentary and academic writings in the general area of philosophy and social study of technology seeking to understand the rich and sometimes troubling relationship between technology, on the one hand, and social and political factors, on the other. With this literature as a springboard, we ask questions such as: Does technology make the world better, or worse? Is technology a force for good or evil, or is it neutral? Who should be in charge of directing technological development? Do scientists and engineers have a special role to play? Does technology dehumanize us? The second track directs us through a similar set of questions focusing on information and communication technologies.
          This is a project-centered course. Accordingly, while we explore concepts and literatures, students will be forming collaborative groups, selecting projects and applying philosophical and social theories of technology to analyze and, possibly, design information systems. From the beginning, students will be guided in the selection and development of project ideas and will be matched with one or two others, based on mutual interests and complementary skills. The course welcomes students with a variety of backgrounds, including technical computer science and engineering students interested in learning about social, political, and ethical implications of their field, as well as students with humanistic, social science, and communications backgrounds interested in learning about the technology behind digitally mediated communication and experience. Project goals and deliverables will be adjusted according students’ backgrounds and skills.


All required articles are available on Blackboard.
Strongly recommended:
Weston, A, A Rulebook for Arguments. 3rd. edition (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000)
Norman, D. The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Doubleday, 1989 (Later editions are fine.)
Lessig, Lawrence. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. New York: Basic Books, 1999 (Later editions are fine.)

Blackboard Course Homepage

The course homepage includes the most up-to-date schedule as well as course requirements, readings, and announcements. In addition, you will find external links and an online discussion board.

Requirements and Grading Policy

Students are expected to attend all classes, complete assigned readings before class, and turn in readings responses each week. Grades will be assessed according to four criteria: participation (in-class and online), weekly readings’ responses, a collaborative project presentation, and a term paper.

***To pass the class, students must pass each of the four elements.

20% Participation (attendance, in-class and online)
20% Weekly readings responses (online and in-class): Due Sunday 8pm before each class
20% Project presentation
40% Term paper (12-15 pp)


Jan 26 Introduction to the Course

Feb 2 Technology and Human Values
Introduction to key course themes, with a few examples
Discussion of projects


Winner, L. "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" The Whale and the Reactor. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986. 19-39.

Mumford, L. "Authoritarian and Democratic Technics.” Technology and Culture 5.1 (1964): 1-8.

Friedman, B. & Nissenbaum, H. “Bias in Computer Systems.“ ACM Transactions on Information Systems 14.3 (1996): 330-347.

Feb 9 Technology a Force for Good or Evil: The Idea of Technological Determinism


Weinberg, Alvin M. "Can Technology Replace Social Engineering." Controlling Technology: Contemporary Issues. Ed. W. B. Thompson. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991. 41-48.

Smith, M.R. "Technological determinism in American culture" In Smith, M.R. and L. Marx (Eds.), Does Technology Drive History?: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1-35.

Postman, Neil. “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change."

Ellul, J. "The 'Autonomy' of the Technological Phenomenon.” Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition. Ed. R. Scharff. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003. 386-397.

Wiener, N. "Some moral and technical consequences of automation." Science, New Series, 131(3410), 1355-1358.

Feb 16 Presidents' Day (no classes)
Feb 23 Social Construction of Technology and Socio-technical Systems


Bijker, W. "The Social Construction of Fluorescent Lighting." In Bijker, W.E. and J. Law (Eds.), Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 75-102.

Bijker, W. "Introduction." Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1-17.

Pfaffenberger, B. "Technological Dramas." Science, Technology, & Human Values 17.3 (1992): 282-312.

Latour, Bruno. "Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts." Shaping Technology/Building Society. Ed. W. Bijker and J. Law. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992. 225-258.

Mar 2 Values Embodied in the Socio-technical


Johnson, D.G. "Computer Systems: Moral Entities but not Moral Agents." Ethics and Information Technology 8 (2006): 195-204

Introna, L. “Towards a Post-Human Intra-Actional Account of Socio-Technical Agency.” Towards a Post-Human Account of Socio-Technical Agency (and Morality) (draft)

Bowker, G. & Star, S. L. “Ch.7: What a Difference a Name Makes – The Classification of Nursing Work” and “Ch.10: Why Classifications Matter.” Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. 229-252 and 319-326.

Mar 9 The Practical Turn I: Expanding the Set of Evaluative Criteria


Weber, R. "Manufacturing Gender in Military Cockpit Design." The Social Shaping of Technology. Eds. MacKenzie, D. and J. Wajcman. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1985.

Norman, Donald. "The Design of Everyday Things." New York: Doubleday, 1989, 1-33, 81-104.

Gibson, J. "The Theory of Affordances." The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 127-143.

Mar 16 Spring Break
Mar 23 The Practical Turn II: Can Values Drive Design?


Bentham, Jeremy. "Panopticon; or the Inspection House." The Panopticon Writings. New York: Verso, 1995. 31-37.

Flanagan, M., Howe, D. and Nissenbaum, H. "Embodying Values in Technology: Theory and Practice." Information Technology and Moral Philosophy. Jeroen van den Hoven and John Weckert (eds.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 322-353.

Sengers, P., Boehner, K., David, S. and Kaye, J. "Reflective Design." Culturally Embedded Computing Group. Cornell Information Science, 2005.

Mar 30 Values: What? Whose?


Constitution of the United States of America: Bill of Rights

Moor, J. "Reason, Relativity, and Responsibility in Computer Ethics." Computers and Society, 14-21.

Nagel, Thomas. "The Fragmentation of Value." Mortal Questions. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1979. 128-141.

Berlin, I. The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas Ed. Henry Hardy. New York: Knopf, 1991. 1-19.

Moore, A. "Values, Objectivity, and Relationalism." The Journal of Value Inquiry, 38, 75-90.

Johnson, D. J. "Sorting Out the Feminist Technology Question." In Layne, L., Vostral, S. and K. Boyer (Eds.), Feminist Technology. Champaign, IL: The University of Illinois Press, Chapter 2.

Apr 6 The Internet


Lessig, L. "The Law of the Horse: What Cyberlaw Might Teach." 113 Harvard Law Review 501 (1999).

Benkler, Y. and H. Nissenbaum (2006), "Commons-based Peer Production and Virtue." Journal of Practical Philosophy, 14(4), 394-419.

Zittrain, J. "The Generative Internet." Harvard Law Review. Cambridge, MA: Gannett House, 1974-2040.

Gillespie, T. "The Copyright Balance and the Weight of DRM." Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture." Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 21-64.

Apr 13 The Practical Turn III: Alternative Approaches, Considerations, and Challenges


Friedman, B., Kahn, P. and Borning, A. "Value Sensitive Design and Information Systems." Human-Computer Interaction in Management Information Systems: Foundations. Eds. B. Schneiderman, P. Zhang & D. Galletta. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

Perry, J., Macken, E., Scott, N. and J. McKinley. "Disability, Inability, and Cyberspace." Human Values and the Design of Computer Technology. Ed. Batya Friedman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 65-90.

Manders-Huits, N. and M. Zummer, "Values and Pragmatic Action: The Challenges of Introducing Ethical Intelligence in Technical Design Communities." International Review of Information Ethics, X.

Apr 20 Spillover

Apr 27 Project Presentations

May 4 Project Presentations

Guide to Collaborative Projects: Target Timeline

Feb 9: Select Topic and Group

Feb 23: Outline Project (2-4 pages); Decide on Project Type

Mar 16: Project Sources (Submit Bibliography, Annotated if Possible; Websites; Objects: 3-5 Pages)

Apr 6: Working Draft (Analysis, Design)

Apr 27/May 4: Project Presentations

May 8: Term Paper Due

Last Updated: March 10, 2009
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