Abstract of The Ethics of Databases

       Joseph Goguen
      Meaning and Computation Lab, Dept. of Computer Science & Engineering
      University of California at San Diego

This is a report on part of a project to study the "natural ethics" of information artifacts. We hypothesize that specific but implicit values can be found in the designs of such artifacts, and that these values can be uncovered by techniques analoguous to those used in the study of literature, e.g., determining what is important by examining placement, color, size, participation in repetitive patterns, ease of access, participation in contrastative patterns, etc. Such studies can be formalized using semiotics, but must not be divorced from the context of their actual use within social groups.

This case study examines value systems that can be imputed to well known web "search engines"; we first note that such engines in fact are little more than large databases of URLs with a graphical query interface. We then consider two main issues: (1) how URLs are chosen for inclusion; and (2) how access to them is structured. We find that commercial values play a large and increasing role, but that the values of users can also be detected, through the "populist" ethic used for URL selection, and through the account taken of the biological, cognitive and social natures of users. By contrast, traditional database access mechanisms like SQL reveal a staunchly modernist value system, that is highly unsuitable for this domain.

This work can be grounded the author's "social theory of information," which is based on a combination of semiotics and ethnomethodology. In brief, an item of information is defined socially, by reference to some group to which it is important, and semiotically, through the system of differences in which it participates; a similar notion was called a "category system" in ethnomethodology by Harvey Sacks. Extra precision is available through the author's "algebraic semiotics," which combines social semiotics with algebraic specification; though such precision is hardly needed for present purposes, having it in the background does provide methodological guidelines, and also allows the technical terms and arguments in our study to be made much more rigorous than is usual.

This is the abstract of a talk given 6 December 1999 at the Annenberg Center of the University of Southern California, and 29 October 1999, at the 1999 Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science, San Diego, California.
The paper is available on the web.
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Last modified 10 December 1999