CSE 190B: Social and Ethical Issues in Information Technolgy
Note: These notes are intended as an outline of the main points, rather than a careful exposition; moreover, they will not always be complete, nor will they always be available immediately after class. The class notes are not a substitute for attending class! Much more information is often given in the lectures; in addition, there may be handouts, guest lecturers, diagrams on the board, etc.

1. Introduction

Our society is deeply involved with technology, and recently, especially with information technology. Many people want to know, where is it all going? What does it mean? Is it good or bad? Newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and of course the internet, are all full of evaluations and predictions, both dire and glorious. The result can be enormous confusion, with thoughtfulness sacrificed for flashiness, perhaps with the intent of increasing media market share. Also, social and political ideologies and business interests often distort media presentations. So better questions than "Where is it all going?" are "How can we think about all this?" and "How do we tell truth from trash?" In a way, this course is about questioning what you read, hear and see in the media; it is also about learning to think for yourself. And it is about what is right and wrong, and why.

It is very important to note that most workers in industry, even high tech industry, spend much (maybe even most) of their time dealing with problems that have a large social dimension, rather than a purely technical character. Some examples are: How many people will want to buy this product? What will they want to do with it? How will they want it improved? How long will it take us to get it to market? How much will it cost us to make it? What is the trade off among product quality, time to market, and cost, and where is the optimum point? What plans does our competitor have? Such questions can have an enormous impact on design questions that may seem purely technical, such as choosing an operating sytem. And such questions very often have significant ethical dimensions.

When we ask questions like, "What is the Eifel tower?" or "What is the atomic bomb?" or "What is TV?" it is of course possible to give a purely technical answer, but such an answer will miss much of the most important information, which concerns why people would be interested in such a thing at all. If we ask "What is the internet?" an answer limited to the TCP/IP protocol would not be very satisfactory; in particular, other protocols could have been consistent with the same same social results (though there is an interesting sense in which many protocols could not have been so used); explaining TCP/IP is very far from explaining the internet.

Nearly every day, newspapers have front page articles on some important socio-technical issue, often involving information technology in a significant way; recent examples include the Microsoft anti-trust appeal and the California power deregulation crisis. The front pages of newspaper business sections often consists almost entirely of articles about socio-technical issues. News magazines, the more thoughtful TV news programs, business magazines, and TV business programs follow a similar pattern. There is a widespread awareness that very large social changes that involve information technology are happening, but there is also widespread confusion about what is happening, whether it is good or bad, and what to do about it. So the topic of this course would seem to be important.

But we should get beneath the surfaces that appear in the mass media. We will explore how a variety of social science approaches can be applied to technology and science, and especially to information technology. Some of the approaches considered are reductionism, narratology, economics, actor-network theory, and neo-classical economics. We will also critically survey a number of theories of ethics. There will be a number of case studies to illustrate these theories, and to provide greater insight into various aspects of technology and science.

1.1 Why Take this Course?

1.2 Acknowledgements

I thank all the students who have been in the various versions of this class for their enthusiastic participation and many contributions. I also thank Dr. Almira Karabeg for help in getting the course started; she co-taught it during its Fall 1998 incarnation as CSE 268D, and made many useful suggestions.


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Last modified: Tue Mar 13 21:34:13 PST 2001