ECS 188 – Ethics in an Age of Technology – Course Information – Spring 2008

Basic Information

We will meet TR 1:40 - 3:00 in 127 Wellman. There were two sections, but one was canceled for low enrollment. So ours is "Section 1" in a class that no longer has a Section 2. The instructor is Phil Rogaway, Please see my homepage,, for office hours. My office is in 3063 Kemper (but I expect to move some time this term).

There is a final for this class, but for some reason it was not listed on the campus-wide schedule of finals. It is on the Department's list of finals, and attending the final is obligatory. The final will be Tuesday, June 10, 10:30 - 12:30.

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 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 do not use Arial font on anything you turn in, nor for your presentation.

The are really no prerequisites for this class. But you must be willing to read a lot (there will be roughly 70 pages/week of assigned reading), to write some, and to prepare and give a reasonable presentation. An open mind will also serve you well.


The course material will be broad, open-ended, and probably unlike anything you've taken (definitely unlike anything else you've taken beginning "ECS"). Most of the class time will be spent with you guys talking.

We will be using a reader that I've assembled. This is the first time I've done this, so we'll see how it works out. You should pick up the reader at the Davis Copy Shop. Ask for Reader #036, the one for ECS 188.

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: Attendance is very important. I will keep track of it, and it will figure rather strongly in your grade. Quizzes will not normally be announced. For them, you are welcome to bring any notes that you yourself have prepared (but you may not consult the readings themselves). You may also bring such notes to the final (as well as the readings). The final paper and oral presentation will be on a topic of your choice, and you will 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.

All that said, 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, and don't "blow off" the assignments, you will do well.

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. What you certainly can (and even should) do is talk to people about what you're reading and thinking about.

Final Comments

If everyone comes to class having done the reading and feeling ready to talk about it, the class works well. If you show up without having done the reading or just wanting to put your mark on the attendance sheet and get out of here, the class will be a pointless drag. As with any seminar-format class, you and I share the responsibility for making this 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 as human beings? And with someone who, rather oddly, is not only a serious scientist, but someone who actually cares about these things?

I don't see the topic of this course as an entirely "academic" undertaking. I have little patience for moral philosophy as an academic discipline stripped of any imperative to act, and, similarly, I have little interest in the narrow, insignificant, or make-believe issues that "computer ethics" courses sometimes treat. If you've come expecting some tedious prof to preach, tell you not to use file-sharing networks or whatever it is you assume to be the ethical issues of interest within a CS department, forget it. What I myself would like is to come out of the class not just a little more knowledgeable, but in some way a wiser or better person. That's a lot to hope for from a class, any class, for any of us. Let's see if it's possible to do anything in that direction.

Phil Rogaway's homepage