ECS 188 – Ethics in an Age of Technology – Course Information – Fall 2011

Basic Information


We will be using an online course reader that I’ve put together. Despite its being online, I believe that most people will want to purchase a hardcopy, as you need to bring at least the reading(s) we are talking about to class each day. (For example, I may ask you to read a passage aloud or to explain a particular section.) You can buy the hardcopy reader at Copyland, a business located at 231 G Street, phone +1 530 756 2679, in downtown Davis. As an alternative to bringing hardcopy, you may bring a tablet (eg, an iPad or a Kindle) in lieu of a printout or the hardcopy reader. But please do not use a conventional laptop during class.

Course Structure and Goals

The course material will be broad, open-ended, and unlike anything else the begins 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. There will be a lot of them; many, possibly most, days will probably 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 (assuming some students want this time slot) and an exam.

The grades I assign for this class tend to be high relative to other classes I teach; if you understand the readings, do the assigned work, and come to class every day, you should do fine.

Written assignments

All written 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). Students are incredulous, but I am more than crazy enough to deduct points (consciously or subconsciously) for not following these directions.

Arrival in Class

Each day, please arrange your desks in a circle before class begins. Pick up your name card and put it on the front of your desk. I don’t really recognize human faces; the name cards are my trick that, eventually, I may start to feel like I know who you are. Sitting in the same position each class is also helpful for me.

For a discussion 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.

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 entirely your own (you can ask a friend to proofread your work, but it shouldn’t go beyond that). Your talk likewise must be entirely your own work. Please acknowledge all ideas and quotations. Use proper referencing. Obviously you may not purchase your paper or presentation from any source. Of course you can, and even should, talk to people about what we’re reading. Finally, 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 as seriously as I do. In truth, 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 imagine to be the ethical issues of interest to people in a Computer Science department, you can divest yourself of such expectations. 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, 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.

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