ECS 188 – Spring 2023 – Ethics in an Age of Technology – Course Information

If you’re in my class, or hoping to get in, you need to read everything on this webpage.



The course material will be broad, open-ended, and unlike anything else the begins with the letters ECS. You, not me, will do the vast majority of the talking.

At the end of the term, your course-evaluation form will say that The course aims 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. It also aims to have you read a lot, to write a fair amount, and to become more comfortable participating in oral discussions and giving an oral presentation.

ECS 188 satisfies UCD’s Writing-Experience (WE) Literacy. I am more interested in writing quality than most of my peers, and less forgiving of bad writing. The course also satisfies UCD requirements for Scientific Literacy (SL) and Social Sciences (SS).


The grading criteria this term is: Attendance is mandatory (barring illness or extraordinary circumstances); please send an email to explain any absence. Quizzes are unannounced, but many class, possibly most, 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 almost all classes (maximum of four missed classes);
  2. Take the final exam and get a passing grade on it;
  3. Complete the final project and get a passing grade on it;
  4. Have no unexcused absence and miss no assignment during the first two weeks of class (4/03–4/14); and
  5. Have no instance of academic misconduct in this class.

The grades I assign for this class tend to be high relative to other classes I teach: if you do all the readings, understand them, do the assigned work, and come to class, you’ll do fine. On the other hand, if you have reading comprehension issues or can’t write a decent sentence/paragraph/essay, this class is going to be a problem for you. Were I myself a student I would find this class difficult because I read slowly and there is much reading to do.

Dropping the Class

We are drastically over-enrolled. This is not an accident. The Department does not offer enough seats largely because the class is so resource intensive. There are further issues, too. Like the fact that the assumptions that undergrid the class—at least as I teach it—fall outside of prevailing CS and Departmental norms. I would say that we offer this class reluctantly, and, in large part, to appease an accreditation body, ABET.

I want to admit everyone who genuinely wants to be here. This is difficult to do because this is an intimate, discussion-based class that becomes less effective as enrollment goes up. This creates a very real conflict.

You should be able to figure out promptly if my teaching connects with you, if you’ll be able to handle the workload, and if you’re emotionally in a place where you can take the stress of facing the issues we will face. If the class is not for you, please figure this out and drop not just by the 10-day drop deadline, but by this Friday, April 7.

This class is not for everyone. Compared to other sections of ECS 188, mine involves more reading, harder readings, stricter grading, and is more depressing. If you’re here just to fulfill a CSE requirement then I am not the right instructor for you. If you’re here because you need a CS elective and suspect that this will be easier than other options, this is almost certainly untrue when I am the instructor.


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.

You may have to purchase some inexpensive books and films as the course progresses. I have seen that people try to avoid these purchases, even when they are, like $2.99. This is an silly. There is no reason you should let such a small sum determine what you are reading or watching, or how.

Each day, you must bring that day’s reading(s) to class. You can bring it either as a hardcopy or on an e-reader. You may not use a conventional laptop or smart phone during class. You will want to mark up readings as you read them. If you do not have convenient access to a printer, or if you think the university is charging you too much to make printouts, then I suggest that you buy a printer and a ream of paper. Alternatively, you may want to buy an e-reader.

Students often don’t understand or remember readings. They will say that they read something, and I believe them, yet they can’t answer basic questions about it. While a few readings are genuinely hard, possibly beyond some student’s reading abilities, I think the main problem is that people read when they are are distracted. It won’t work. Get yourself away from whatever distracts you. Also, look up words you don’t know. I may even test you on them. Some school teachers provide terrible advice when they tell students to skip over unfamiliar words or just guess their meaning from context. Instead, read like the words matter. Because they do.

The media on which you read also matters: trying to read a challenging article on a smartphone is insane. A monitor might not be much better.

When you read, make sure you know the author’s name and at least a little bit about who they are. Know roughly when the piece was written. Make sure you genuinely understand the ideas the author is saying, whether you agree or not.

And the same for films. If we watch a film together, or I ask you to do this on your own, give it just as much attention as you would a close reading. Don’t multitask. Another description of multitasking is not paying attention.


Write, rewrite, then rewrite some more. Read the prompt carefully and make your writing responsive to it. Attend to everything: depth of ideas, clarity, coherence, organization, diction, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and typesetting. Make it pretty—at every level. Do not turn in a first draft. While you won’t write that much for this class, I expect you to write in a manner consistent with being an upper-division student at a halfway decent university.

If you’re used to teachers who ignore “low-level” issues, perhaps telling you that your ideas are all that matters, forget it. First of all, it’s just not true; good ideas are inextricably tied to good expression of them. Indeed the notion that there is a meaningful distinction between good ideas and a good expression of them is pretty suspect. Second, if you’re capable of good writing, then it’s kind of rude to subject me or the TA to something else.

But if neither of these two reasons resonate with you, feel free to consider it part of my idiosyncratic character that I get distracted by bad writing and bad typesetting to such an extent that I will be unable to see anything else. When I encounter a page of ugly or careless prose, I usually can’t figure out the intent. It also makes me nervous.

All written assignments done outside of class must be typeset and submitted as pdf documents. While scholarly work in academia should normally be done in LaTeX (at least for the sciences), I won’t complain if you turn in softcopy produced by Word or the like. But your typesetting must use justified text (no ragged-right margins) and should not use a monospaced or sans-serif font (like Courier or Arial). Wiring that violates this request may be penalized or returned ungraded.

Some low-level things that drive me crazy include: typewriter quotes ("this" instead of “this”) and typewriter apostrophes (Rogaway's class instead of Rogaway’s class); wrong dash lengths (if you never noticed the difference between an em-dash, en-dash, and hyphen, it is past time you did!); confusion of i.e. and e.g.; confusion of that and which; missing spaces or extra spaces; references that are nothing but a URL; calling authors or other famous people by their first names, as though they were personal friends of yours. If you have any of these problems—or you don’t even know what I’m talking about—take a moment to figure it out. Like, right now.

If an assignment comes with a length requirement expressed in words, please include the word count at the top. The count should exclude references.

Attendance – Arrival – Classroom Conduct

For a discussion-based class like ours, attendance—indeed active attendance—is key. Please consider attendance to be mandatory, missing a class only when there is an excellent reason for this.

That said, if you really are sick, please stay away. If you suspect that you might be getting sick, wear an N95 mask, and wear it properly.

For an absence or two due to an illness, you do not need to provide any documentation beyond an email saying that you were sick. If you must miss a class for personal reasons, please let me know in advance what is going on. Sometimes I excuse those and not count it as an absence.

Arriving late is disruptive; please arrive on-time. For purposes of marking attendance, you are counted as half-present for the day if you arrive even a little late. I often give quick quizzes at the very start of class. If you arrive late, you will still need to turn in the quiz with everyone else. If you arrive very late, or if you leave early and don’t tell me about it (before or in an email just after), I’ll record it as absent.

Each day, unless I indicate otherwise, please arrange your desks in a circle before class begins. Try to make us a nice space.

We will make name cards. You must bring your name card to every class and put it on the front of your desk. I’m happy if you sit in the same position each class, never change your hair, and never change your clothes. You see, I have this thing that I can’t recognize human faces. I probably won’t be able to recognize you if I see you outside of class. It’s not personal, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t care about you.

Before walking into our class, mobile phones must be turned off or silenced, not left to vibrate. They must be put into your backpack or purse, not shoved into your pocket. The prohibition against using phones in the classroom starts the moment you walk into the door, not when class starts. No use is allowed, not even to check the time. Use of phones in violation of the stated rules will be treated as an instance of academic misconduct. If some emergency arises such that you need to consult your phone, quietly excuse yourself from the room and return when you are done.

Similarly, you may not use a conventional laptop in class. E-readers are fine. Tablets and laptops folded flat like a tablet are a boundary case; if you can configure it so that all you see is the reading we are discussing, that should be okay.

Please don’t wear scented products to our class or to my office hours. One person’s nice smell is another person’s toxin.

Please don’t sleep in class, read the newspaper, or do the hundred other things like that that are obviously rude. This is not a lecture hall of 200 people: it is an intimate class where we aim to meaningfully interact with one another.


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 longer “whitespace” than you are used to. Don’t monopolize, but do speak up.

We will be discussing contentious, emotional, and personal topics. Within our class it is totally fine to express a political opinion, to say something politically incorrect, to use profanity, to harshly criticize a professor or public figure, to harshly criticize what someone else just said, to reveal a personal fact or story, and so on. Consider our class a safe place for engaging in free speech. To make this work, cut others some slack if they say something that offends you.

Chatham House Rule

You may not audio record, video, or photograph anything during class. Outside of class, do not reveal who said what to anyone else. This is known as the Chatham House Rule. We will follow it. It can be summarized as: participants may use any information or ideas learned in class, but neither the identity of the speaker(s), nor the identify of any other participant, may be revealed.

Academic Misconduct

In a course in ethics, it would be particularly ironic if people commit acts of academic misconduct. But it is rampant across UCD, and in the CS Department in particular. Make sure you are familiar with UCD’s rules on academic misconduct and the CS Department’s Academic Misconduct Policy (the Misconduct-implies-F policy). I follow this policy strictly. In fact, I wrote it.

Academic misconduct includes violations of the various rules I’ve been talking about. Beyond this: All writing you do must be entirely yours. You may not use ChatGPT, or any similar system, for any course-related purpose. You may ask a friend or a writing instructor to proofread your work and make suggestions, but it shouldn’t go beyond that—and even that should be acknowledged. Your presentation must likewise be entirely your own work (you may not rework some related talk that you find). Acknowledge all ideas and quotations; use proper referencing. Obviously you may not purchase your term paper or presentation. All non-assigned materials you make significant use of must be referenced. For your final project, if you have done a related project before, or if you will use your project for some overlapping class, you need to discuss that possibility with me. For a book-based project, you need to disclose when you request the book if you have already read some or all of it. It is an instance of academic misconduct to ask or tell someone in the other section about whether or not there was a quiz, or what it is on. 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. It is academic misconduct to claim that you missed a class because of an illness if you weren’t sick. It is academic misconduct to get your attendance recorded and then slip out of class (e.g., during the showing of a film). End of obligatory and obvious nonsense.

Emotional Support

What we discuss in this class can be depressing. I would like you to look both inward and outward, and you might not like what you see. I would like you to care about where we are headed, which is harder than non caring. Some mental-health resources, if you need them, include the Student Health and Counseling Services and the Office of Student Support and Judicial Affairs. The U.S. has established a Suicide and Crisis Lifeline that can be reached by calling 988. I will give out my own phone number in class.

Final Thoughts

If everyone comes to class having done the reading (or watched the video or whatever), prepared and eager to discuss it, the class works well. As with any seminar-format class, you and I share the responsibility for making the class work. I can’t do it on my own. Please take your responsibility as seriously as I do.

The class is a rare opportunity: where else are you invited to stop, step back, and explore the (often grave) ethical issues that we face as human beings and as co-creators of all this technological wizardry. And you get to do this with someone who is not only a well-known computer scientist, but someone who actually cares about these things. Something that, in CS, is astonishingly rare.

I myself never got to take a class like this. I wish I had. I wonder if my own trajectory would have changed.

Final Final Thoughts

I don’t see the topic of this course as merely or even primarily “academic”. I have no patience for moral philosophy stripped of the imperative to actually act and to care. To get there, feeling is more important than knowing. My class deliberately does not stay within the traditional confines of computer ethics. What I myself would like is for both of us to come out of the course a little wiser, and as slightly better human beings.

I expect to retire this summer; this is the last time I will be teaching at UCD. In fact, I expected to retire last summer, but put this off because I wanted to end my career at UCD by teaching this class. Not end it teaching a reviled section of ECS 20. I expect that this may be a difficult and emotionally charged term for me. When I started my journey at UCD almost three decades ago, I never expected that I would end at a place feeling quite so bad about where we’re all at.

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