ECS 188 – Fall 2017 – Ethics in an Age of Technology – Course Information

If you’re in this class, you need to read everything on this webpage.


Waiting list

Each section is capped at 24 students, and we have about 15 people on waiting list for each section. So if you are not sure you want to take this class this term, please be kind and drop right away, to make space for others. There is a 10-day drop day for the class, but I ask you to drop by Monday, Oct 2, if you won’t be sticking with the class.

Students not present during the first day of class, as determined by completing the distributed survey of attitudes, will be dropped from the class.

I plan to fill each class to 24, using PTA numbers, in waiting-list order, but restricted to people who have attended all classes and turned in all work.


The course material will be broad, open-ended, and unlike anything else the begins with the letters ECS. Most of the class time will be spent with you guys talking.

At the end of the term, your evaluation will say the following: My goal is to increase your inclination to think about, and act upon, the ethical implications of your personal and professional choices, and our collective work as technologists. I’d also like you to read a lot, to write a fair amount, and to become more comfortable participating in oral discussions and giving an oral presentation.


The grading criteria: Quizzes are not announced, but many (perhaps most) days class will begin with one. The final paper and oral presentation will be on a topic of your choice, and you will work in pairs on it. The final exam slot will be used both for student presentations and an exam. To pass the class, you must (1) attend the first class (this is to make sure that people drop the class if they haven’t been attending it from the start); (2) attend almost all classes (approximately four missed/late classes maximum, at my discretion); (3) take the final exam (and stay in class until the end of the exam slot); and (4) have no instance of academic misconduct for this class.

The grades I assign for this class tend to be somewhat higher than technical classes I teach, yet it’s not as though it’s an easy A. My classes tend to be more challenging than those of other professors in the department, and this class is no exception. If you tend to squeak through based on partial credit and generous grading, I’m not a good instructor for you.

Because of the importance of attendance in your grade, and because it is so easy to make errors when you are handing a vector of 24 x 3 x 30 trits (present, absent, and late), please make sure you know exactly which classes you were absent or late for. You should also retain all quizzes, which establish presence for days where there were quizzes.


There is a course reader that I’ve put together, but I often make additions to it, and we certainly don’t cover all that’s there, either. Direct links to readings will appear in our daily schedule.

Each day, you must bring that day’s reading(s) to class. Bring it either as a hardcopy or on a tablet or e-reader. You may not use a conventional laptop or smart phone in class. You will almost certainly want to mark up readings as you read them. Students often don’t understand readings or can’t remember them. While sometimes a reading may be genuinely hard (nobody would claim that reading Martin Heidegger or Hans Jonas is easy), but, at least for native speakers of English, I think the real problem is that people read without focus. It doesn’t work. Separate yourself from whatever might be distracting you. The media you read on matters. Trying to read a challenging essay on a phone is insane. A monitor might not be much better.

When you read, make sure you know the author’s name and something about who he or she is. Know roughly when the piece you’re reading was written. If you don’t know any words you encounter, look them up. You can’t understanding writing when you don’t know the words. (The advice teachers sometimes give to skip over words you don’t know and just try to extract the overall meaning is stupid.) Make sure you genuinely understand the ideas the author is making. I won’t be real interested in your opinion on a topic until you’ve demonstrate an understand of the author’s.


Proofread all writing for clarity, coherence, organization, diction, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and typesetting. Write, rewrite, rewrite again. Don’t turn in a first draft. While you won’t write all that much in this class, I expect you to write in a manner consistent with being an upper-division student at a reasonable US university.

If you’re used to teachers who ignore “low-level” English issues because your ideas are all that matters, or some similar nonsense, forget it. First, good ideas are inextricably tied to good expression of them. Indeed the notion that there’s much of a distinction between good ideas and good expression of them is philosophically and empirically suspect. Second, it’s kind of rude to subject a busy person to poor writing. And rudeness and ethics are, if not siblings, at least close cousins. But if neither of those reasons resonate with you, feel free to consider it part of my odd, OCD character that I just get super distracted by bad writing and bad typesetting — to the point that I simply won’t be able to attend to whatever point you might intend.

All written assignments done outside of class must be typeset. While scholarly work in academia should normally be done in LaTeX, it is, I know, embarrassingly convenient to prepare short, non-technical work in Word. And for a jointly authored non-technical paper, Google Docs is hard to beat. Regardless of how you created your work, please submit it as .pdf.

Your typesetting must use justified text (no ragged-right margins) and may not use a monospaced or sans-serif font (e.g., Courier or Arial). When I see an entire page of ragged-right Arial text, all I really see is an outpouring of ugly, simplistic, emphatic ink. It probably won’t be graded.

Some further typesetting problems drive me crazy and simply should not be done: typewriter quotes ("this" instead of “this”); typewriter apostrophes (“the author's essay” instead of “the author’s essay”) and wrong dash lengths (are people really so unobservant that they never noticed the visual difference between an en-dash, an em-dash, a hyphen, and a minus sign?). If you somehow missed some basic English grammar rules (e.g., that vs. which), please look it up.

It drives me crazy when students refer to the authors by their first name, as though they were personal friends of yours.

Something new this term is the following rule: if you are a non-native speaker of English, you are strongly encouraged to select a native speaker of English as a project partner. This is not to imply that native speakers of English necessarily write better than non-native speakers of English. They don’t. But the partnering guideline may reduce the number of projects written in flagrantly ungrammatical English. In the past, such projects have been the most painful to read.


Each day, unless I indicate otherwise, please arrange your desks in a circle before class begins. Put your name card in front of your desk. I have the odd characteristic that I can’t actually recognize human faces and the name cards are my little trick so that, eventually, I start to feel like I know who you are. Sitting in the same position each class is also helpful for me. Also, it would be good to never change your clothes or cut your hair is good.

For a discussion-based class like ours, coming late is disruptive; please arrive on-time. For purposes of marking attendance, you are counted as half here if you arrive late.


Mobile phones brought to class must be turned off or put in a silent (not just vibrate) mode. Better yet, don’t bring the things to school, or just discard them with other electronic waste.

The prohibition against using phones in class applies to all uses of them (as a watch, a dictionary, or whatever). It also applies to using the devices in class in the minutes before class actually begins.

You may not use a conventional laptop in class. E-readers and tablets are fine, or laptops folded into tablets, as long as these devices are used only for displaying the day’s reading or, perhaps, scribbling a few notes with a stylus.

Please don’t wear scented products to our class or to my office hours. One person’s nice smell is another person’s toxin. For me, most every scented product is an asthma-inducing poison.

Please don’t sleep in class, read the newspaper, or do the hundred other things that ought to be obviously rude but, somehow, apparently are not.

Please listen closely when other people speak. Be polite, even when you strongly disagree with something said. Give everyone a chance to talk. Sometimes this means leaving a larger “whitespace” between people talking than you might think necessary.

We will sometimes discuss contentious topics, or things that touch upon the personal. If you feel inclined to express a strong political opinion, to say something politically incorrect, to use profanity, to harshly criticize a professor or a public figure, or to reveal a personal fact or story, please go right ahead: consider our class a safe place for engaging in such speech. If you hear a classmate say something that they might view as personal or political, please don’t reveal the identity of the speaker when engaging in discourse with others. This is known as the Chatham House Rule.


For a discussion-based class like ours, attendance is important. For a single absence due to an illness, you do not need to provide any documentation beyond an email saying that you were sick. You should provide such an email, and I will mark your absence as excused. For any subsequent medical absence, make sure to provide medical documentation.

If you know you will miss some class due to some personal matter, please let me know in advance. Depending on the reason, I might or might not mark the absence as excused. While interviews with prospective employers will not be treated as excused, I still like to hear in advance if you won’t be around. (Note: you have every right to expect that a potential employer accommodate your class schedule; if they won’t, are you sure you want to work for them?) If you must leave a class early for some reason, please do let me know in advance, lest I count you as absent or think you rude.

Academic misconduct

I haven’t had many problems with academic misconduct in ECS 188, and issues would be particularly ironic for a course in ethics. Yet academic dishonesty is so rampant at UCD that I must speak to this anyway.

Of course you can, and even should, talk to people about what we are reading or talking about. But all writing you do must be entirely your own. (You can ask a friend or writing instructor to proofread your work and make suggestions on better writing, but it shouldn’t go beyond that.) Your talk likewise must be entirely your own work: you may not rework some related talk(s) that you find. Acknowledge all ideas and quotations that come from others, using proper referencing. Obviously you may not purchase (nor find online) your paper or presentation. Your work must be new: if you did a related class project before, or if your project will overlap with another class project this term, you need to discuss that possibility with me. For a book-based project, you need to disclose when you request the project if you have already read some or all of the book.

It is an instance of academic misconduct to ask or tell someone in another section of this class about whether or not there’s a quiz, or what might be on it. If I pass around a sign-in sheet, it’s academic misconduct to sign-in for someone else, or to ask someone to do this for you. If you arrive late and find that there’s a sign-in sheet, do sign in, but write “LATE” just after your name. Of course turning in an assignment for someone else, or asking them to do so for you, is again academic misconduct (unless the assignment clearly indicates that the author is not present). It’s an instance of academic misconduct to claim that you missed a class because of an illness if you weren’t in fact sick.

I hate writing referrals to SJA, but I always do so in case of suspected misconduct.

Many people assume that academic misconduct matters are obvious and universal. They are not, and boundary cases, as well as cultural misunderstandings, routinely occur. If you have any doubt, talk to me: it is your responsibility to understand my expectations in this connection.

Misconduct-implies-F policy: If you engage in any form of academic misconduct in this class, either by your own admission or an SJA finding, I will assign you an “F” grade in the class. By taking this class with me, you are agreeing to this policy.

While I myself regard an F grade as a minor penalty relative to the severity of almost any academic misconduct incident, I wish to emphasize that my misconduct-implies-F policy is not standard at UCD, and is more draconian than what is routinely done (which, beyond whatever SJA does, is only to assign an F or zero grade for the one particular work item where misconduct occurred).

Final thoughts

If everyone comes to class having done the reading (or watched the video or whatever) and feeling ready and eager to discuss it, the class works well. Otherwise—maybe not. As with any seminar-format class, you and I share the responsibility for making the class work. Please take your responsibility in this connection as seriously as I do. I do my best to help get good discussions going, but this goal can’t be achieved without you wanting it, too.

Our class is a rather unusual opportunity: where else are you invited to stop, step back, and explore the (often grave) ethical issues that we face as technologists and human beings? And you get to do this with someone who is not only a “serious” scientist, but who actually cares about these things. To the extent that it animates most of my life. I never got to take a class like this. I wish I had.

I don’t see the topic of this course as “merely” or entirely “academic”; in fact, I have no patience for moral philosophy as an academic discipline stripped of the imperative to actually act and care. Also, my class deliberately does not stay within the traditional confines of computer ethics. In fact, I suppose it works fine as an introduction to STS. If you’ve come expecting some tedious prof to implore you not to use file-sharing networks to get your music, or whatever else you might imagine to be the ethical issues of interest to people in a Computer Science department, forget it; as I think you must know, that’s not where our problems are. What I myself would like is for both of us to come out of the course not just a little more knowledgeable, but, maybe, a little better as human beings. A little wiser and more socially aware. That’s a lot to hope for from an 11-week class. Let’s see if we can make it so.

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