ECS 188 – Ethics in an Age of Technology – Course Information – Spring 2009

Basic Information

We will meet from TR 10:30 - 11:50 in 105 Olson.

The instructor is Phil Rogaway, Please see my homepage,, for office hours. My office is in 3009 Kemper.

There is an obligatory final for this class. The date of it is Friday, December 11, from 1-3 pm.

The course web page contains important information: it is where your assignments are posted, as well as all announcements. It is a click away from my homepage. You need to check the page frequently.

All writing assignments done outside of class must be typeset. I encourage use of LaTeX and discourage use of Word. A free LaTeX implementation for PCs is MiKTeX, and there are many others. If you do use Word, please select a reasonable font (not Arial) on anything you produce, including your presentation, and please make sure to justify the text (ragged right margins are meant to imitate the look of a typewriter; they should rarely be used in this day and age).

The are really no prerequisites for this class. But you must be willing to read a lot, to write some, and to prepare and give a reasonable presentation. An open mind will also serve you well. I target the course towards junior/senior level undergraduates.


We will be using an on-line course reader for the class. While the reader is on-line, most everyone will still want to purchase hardcopy of it. I have provided hardcopy to Copyland, a copy business located at 231 G Street, in downtown Davis. This is the first time I have tried using this shop, but I was disappointed with both the work and price from my prior two attempts. Buying the reader from Copyland will cost around $25. You should bring at least the reading(s) we are talking about to class each day (I may ask you to read a passage or to explain a particular section, for example). You may bring a tablet PC or a Kindle in lieu of a printout or the printed-out reader, but please not a conventional laptop.

Course Structure and Goals

The course material will be broad, open-ended, and probably unlike anything you've taken (definitely unlike anything else you've taken beginning with an "ECS"). Most of the class time will be spent with you guys talking. At the end of the term, your evaluation will state 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 this term is: Quizzes will not be announced. But there will be a lot of them; many, possibly most, days will probably begin with a quiz. For the final you are welcome to bring your course reader and any notes. 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 (assuming some students want this time slot) and a small exam.

The grades I assign for this class are high relative to other classes I teach. If you simply do the readings and assigned work, come to class every day, participate, and don't "blow off" the assignments, you will do fine.

Arriving Punctually

Please make every effort to come to class on time. I may deduct as much as half on the day's quiz or attendance mark if you arrive late.

If Your're Sick

We have been warned that a significant H1N1 flu outbreak is likely, peeking around two or three weeks into the term. If you do get sick, please do not come to class. (Us faculty have been asked to do the same, but that is not always practical.) For a single absence due to sickness spanning one week or less, you do not need to provide any documentation except for an email saying that you were sick on the specified days. In such a case you will lose no points for attendance or for missing a quiz. You should wait until 24 hours after your fever has ended before coming back to class. If you still have a cough, please try to sit away from other students and use proper "cough hygiene". If you come to class while obviously ill, I may ask you to leave, as a simple courtesy to others. This would be kind of embarrassing for both of us.

Academic Honesty

As a course in ethics, it would be particularly ironic if people are dishonest. But let me say some things in this connection anyway. All writing you do must be your own (you can ask a friend to proofread your work, but it shouldn't go beyond that). The talk you prepare must be all your own work. Please acknowledge all ideas and quotations. Obviously you may not purchase papers, or your presentation, from any service. Of course you can, and even should, talk to people about what you're reading about and thinking about. It as an instance of academic dishonesty to claim that you missed a class because of illness if that was not the actual cause.

Final Comments

If everyone comes to class having done the reading and feeling ready and eager to talk about it, the class works well. As with any seminar-format class, you and I share the responsibility for making the class succeed. Please take your responsibility in this connection seriously. The class is an opportunity that should not be lost. Where else are you seriously invited to stop, step back, and explore the (sometimes grave) ethical issues that we face as technologists and human beings? And with someone who is not only a serious scientist, but who actually cares about these things?

I don't see the topic of this course as an entirely "academic" undertaking. I don't have much patience for moral philosophy as an academic discipline stripped of the imperative to genuinely care and to act. My class deliberately does not stay within the traditional confines of "computer ethics". 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 imagined to be ethical issues of interest to people in a Computer Science department, forget it. What I myself would like is for both of us to come out of the class not just a little more knowledgeable, but, maybe, slightly better or wiser or more socially engaged. That's a lot to hope for from a class. Let's see if it's possible to do anything in that direction.

Phil Rogaway's homepage