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Values Embodied in Information and Communication Technologies
E58.2295 (Cross-listed with CSCI-GE 3700)
Tuesdays 2:00 – 4:10 pm
Spring 2012
Helen Nissenbaum, Department of Media, Culture, and Communication

Computing, information technology, and digital media are integrated into virtually all aspects of contemporary life: private and public communication, transactions, and social interaction online and off. Information systems and digital networks constitute the infrastructure for critical societal institutions including commerce, banking and finance, governance, utilities, national defense, education, social networking, political campaigning, and entertainment. Many have studied the remarkable transformations in these activities, practices and institutions, and the science and engineering behind them. This course, however, studies the technologies, and associated socio-technical systems, through the lens of social, political, and ethical values. It asks us to consider whether and how these technologies promote or impede values to which we, individually and as societies, are committed, values, such as freedom, privacy, justice.
          The course is project-centered. This means that while we explore concepts and literatures, students will form collaborative groups, select projects and apply philosophical and social theories of technology to analyze and, possibly, design, prototype, and build information systems. 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. In parallel, we will cover samples from a literature of social commentary and academic writings in the 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 shapes technology? Can the technical and social be distinguished? 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 technology and digital media.
          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.

Course Objectives

To familiarize students with the concept of values-in-design through relevant literatures in the philosophy of technology, information law, political philosophy, and STS;
To acquaint students with examples of key, contemporary controversies in the arena of information systems and digital media;
To synthesize disparate viewpoints into a working understanding that can be applied in an active design project;
To provide a guided, collaborative, cross-disciplinary project design experience.


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.
**From Day Two onward, the blackboard version of the syllabus pre-empts the handout on Day One**

Requirements and Grading Policy

Students are expected to attend all classes, complete assigned readings before class, and come prepared with questions each week. On a rotating basis, students will take responsibility to present ideas and commentary to the class. Grades will be assessed according to three criteria: participation (attendance, in-class presentation and discussion), a collaborative project presentation, and a term paper.

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

30% Participation (attendance, in-class and online)
20% Project presentation
50% Term paper (12-15 pp)


Jan 24 Introduction to the Course
Guests: Spring 2011 Alumni

January 31 Technology and Human Values
Course themes and projects


Foster, E.M. "The Machine Stops" The Machine Stops. First published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review, 1909.

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

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

(optional) Introna, L. and Nissenbaum, H. (2000) "Shaping the Web: Why the Politics of Search Engines Matter." The Information Society. 16(3), 1-17.

Feb 10 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.

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

Heidegger, M. "The Question Concerning Technology." In The Question Concerning Technology, and other Essays (W. Lovitt, transl) New York: Harper Collins, 1977.
(Intro required; full text optional but encouraged.)

Heilbroner, R.L. "Do Machines Make History?" (1967) Technology and Culture 8(3), 335-345.

Marx, Leo "Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept." (2010) Technology and Culture 51(3), 561-577.

Feb 14 Social Construction of Technology


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.

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

Johnson, J. (B. Latour) "Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer." Social Problems, Vol. 35, No. 3, Special Issue: The Sociology of Science and Technology (Jun., 1988), pp. 298-310

Feb 21 The Practical Turn, Part I


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.

Kerr, I. "Digital Locks and the Automation of Virtue." From "Radical Extremism" to "Balanced Copyright": Canadian Copyright and the Digital Agenda. Toronto, ON: Irwin Law, 247-303, 2010.

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

Feb 28 Values Embodied in the Socio-technical


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)

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

Bowker, G. & Star, S. L. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. (Excerpts) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. 229-252 and 319-326.

Mar 6 The Practical Turn, Part II


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.

Van Oost, E. "Materialized Gender: How Shavers Configure the Users' Femininity and Masculinity." How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technologies. Eds. Oudshoorn, N. and T. Pinch, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003, 193-208.

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

Mar 13 Spring Break
Mar 20 Values: What? Whose?


Constitution of the United States of America: Bill of Rights

Nagel, T. "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.

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.

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

(optional) Anderson, E. "A Pluralist Theory of Value." Value in Ethics and Economics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993, 1-16.

Mar 27 Project work

Apr 13 The Internet, Part I


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

Clark, D. D., Wroclawski, J., Sollins, K. R., and Braden, R. "Tussle in Cyberspace: Defining Tomorrow's Internet." IEEE/ACM Transactions on Networking. 13(3), 2005, 462-475.

Various selections from the living Internet (Internet, Web, Email MUDs: History, Design, Use, More)

Apr 10 The Practical Turn, Part III


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.

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

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.

Apr 17 The Internet, Part II


Pasquale, F. "Reputation Regulation: Disclosure and the Challenge of Clandestinely Commensurating Computing." The Offensive Internet: Privacy, Speech, and Reputation. Eds. S. Levmore and M. Nussbaum. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010, 107-123.

Gillespie, T."Can an algorithm be wrong? Twitter Trends, the specter of censorship, and our faith in the algorithms around us" Culture Digitally: Examining Contemporary Cultural Production, posted October 19, 2011

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

Apr 24 Project Presentations
May 1 Project Presentations

Guide to Collaborative Projects: Target Timeline

Feb 21: Select Topic and Group

Feb 28: Topics Refined

Mar 6: Bibliography Compiled

Week of Mar 27: Individual Group Meetings

Apr 3: Paper/project Outline

Apr 17: Paper/project Draft

Term Paper Due: Date TBD collectively but no later than date of scheduled final exam.

Last Updated: May 22, 2012
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