CSE 275: Social Aspects of Technolgy and Science
Note: Because I encourage open classroom discussions, things may sometimes seem confusing, and even disorganized; however, I will always draw the discussion back together with various remarks along the way, or at the end; if you miss these remarks in class, you might be able find them in the online lecture notes.
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? How well is our team organized for what it must do? How appropriate are the skills of its members? Such questions can have an enormous impact on design issues that may seem purely technical, such as choosing an operating system. 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 base 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 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 case, and the California power deregulation crisis. The front pages of newspaper business sections often consist 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 involving information technology are underway, but there is also very widespread confusion. 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 Kuhnian paradigms. We will also critically survey a number of theories of ethics. There will be a number of case studies to illustrate these theories, and provide greater insight into various aspects of technology and science.

1.1 Why Take this Course?

The article "Information and computer scientists as moral philosophers and social analysts," by Rob Kling, in Computerization and Controversy, pp 32-38, provides good motivation for having material like that in this course as a part of every computer professional's education; this paper should be required reading for chairperson of every computer science department.

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.

To Section 2 of CSE 275 notes.
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Last modified: Mon Oct 20 15:47:21 PDT 2003