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Computers, Ethics, and Social Responsibility

Computer Science Dept.

Spring 1999

Instructor: Helen Nissenbaum

Information and communications technology is profoundly affecting the opportunities and capacities of individuals; it is changing the character of social, political, and economic institutions. In this course we evaluate these changes in terms of ethical, social and political values. In making possible an infrastructure that has thoroughly permeated both private and public realms, information technology has raised questions about risk and responsibility, about new forms of crime, and about security. In establishing a new medium for communication, information and association, it has raised questions about the nature of property rights, privacy, political freedom, free speech, and social justice. We ground our inquiry in a rigorous study of real world cases, but we deepen our understanding of these cases through a study of the underlying values and principles. Although, through a diverse range of readings, we draw on the insights of many perspectives, including those of law, computer science and engineering, sociology, psychology, policy and the popular media, we look to the theoretical frameworks of philosophical ethics and political philosophy to provide our fundamental guideposts.

Course Texts:

D. Johnson and H. Nissenbaum (eds.), Computers, Ethics, and Social Values. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1995 [CESV in Course Plan]

B. Friedman (ed.) Human Values and the Design of Computer Technology. Stanford: Cambridge University Press, 1997 [HVCT in Course Plan]

A course reader [CR in Course Plan] is available for purchase at Triangle Repro Center, 150 Nassau, 924-4630.

Requirements and Grading:

Two papers (6-8 pages) based on required readings. 40%

(Or, a Web page in lieu of one of the papers dedicated to one of the course topics or a related case study.)

A short summary (1-2 pages) of one of the public lectures on science, technology and ethics. 5% (Due two days after lecture.)

Participation in the classroom and preceptorial. The latter includes attendance, contribution to discussion, and submission of questions and discussion points the evening before precept. 25%

Final examination. 30%

To pass the course, students must earn passing grades for each of the above requirements. Late papers are accepted only at discretion of Instructor or Preceptor, usually with grade penalty.


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