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

Basic Information

Section 2 will meet TR 1:40 - 3:00 in 148 Phy/Geo.
Section 1 will meet in TR 4:40 - 6:00 in 1128 Bainer.
Except by special arrangement with me, you need to attend the section you are enrolled in.

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 is on the on-line schedule.

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, rarely what you want in this day and age).

The are really no prerequisites for this class. But you must be willing to read a lot (there will be roughly 50 pages/week of assigned reading), 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. I have provided a copy of it to Campus Copies / Classical Notes (in the MU, near the post office and travel agency). Buying the reader from them will cost around $35. Please do 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). That, taken together with the amount of reading there is, means that it probably will not work for you to go paperless and read everything on your computer. But if you have a tablet PC or a Kindle or whatever that functions for you in lieu of a reader or printout, you are welcome to try.

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. There will be a lot of them; many, possibly most, days will probably begin with a quiz. I will drop the lowest quiz, so that missing a single class shouldn't much matter. Attendance will end up figuring strongly in your grade (more than the 10% would seem to indicate) because multiple missed quizzes will hurt you. For the quizzes and the final you are welcome to bring your own hand-prepared notes, but I will try to design the quizzes so that this is not terribly useful or necessary. 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, 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 will likely deduct something on the day's quiz or attendance mark, up to one half, 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 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 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's not only a pretty 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 actually care and 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 informed or engaged people as well. That's an awful lot to hope for from a class, any class at all. Let's see if it's possible to do anything in that direction.

Phil Rogaway's homepage