ECS 188 – Ethics in an Age of Technology – Course Information – Winter 2013



We will be using an online course reader that I’ve put together. Each day, you must bring the relevant reading(s) to class. This is necessary because, for example, I may ask you to read a passage aloud, or to explain some particular section of the reading. You may bring the readings either as hardcopy or on a tablet. I believe that the tablet solution will you only if you have the ability to easilly highlight or scribble on the pdf documents. Please do not to use a conventional laptop during class.


The course material will be broad, open-ended, and unlike anything else the begins with the letters 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 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. Requirements to pass the class include taking (and passing) the final exam and not missing an excessive number of classes.

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 each day, you should do fine.


Proofread all writing for clarity, coherence, organization, diction, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and typestting. Write, rewrite, and rewrite again. While you won’t write that much in this class, I expect you to write in a manner consistent with being an upper-division student at a strong US university. If you’re used to teachers who ignore “low-level” English issues because “ideas are all what matters,” or some such nonsense, forget it: first, beautiful ideas are inextricably tied to beautiful expression of those ideas; second, I find it rude to subject a busy person to poor writing—and rudeness and ethics are, if not siblings, certainly close cousins. You may consider it part of my odd character that I get extremely distracted—to the point that I won’t be able to attend to meaning—by poor English mechanics. You don’t mean to torture me, do you?

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. There are many others.) You must use justified text—no ragged-right margins—and you must not use a sans-serif font (e.g., Arial). For reasons I don’t understand, students have a hard time following these two requests, which creates a big problem for me, for when I see a page of ragged-right Arial stuff, that, really, is all that I can see. Years of frustration over students not abiding by this request has led me to adopt a simple policy: I won’t grade work that violates these requirements. (Well, the final project I will grade, but deducting at least one-half a letter grade for either fomatting sin.) Other typsetting requirements that drive me crazy: typewriter quotes (it’s “this”, not "this"); typewriter apostrophes (it’s author’s, not author's); and wrong dash lengths - as herein illustrated. It also drives me crazy when students refer to the authors we are reading by their first name, a phenomenon that seems to have emerged quite recently. (It has made me imagine a plague of high school English teachers lecturing on William’s Macbeth or Charles’ Great Expectations—or shall we call them Bill and Chuck?)


Each day, please arrange your desks in a circle before class begins. Put your card in front of your desk. I don’t really recognize human faces and the name cards are my trick that, eventually, I 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 Misconduct

In a course in ethics, it would be particularly ironic if people are dishonest. But it happens, so I had better say some things in this connection.

All writing you do must be entirely your own (you can ask a friend or writing instrutor to proofread your work and make suggestions on better writing, but it shouldn’t go beyond that). Your talk likewise must be entirely your own work: you may not rework related talks that you find. Please acknowledge all ideas and quotations; use proper referencing. Obviously you may not purchase (nor find online) your paper or presentation. (Of course you can, and even should, talk to people about what we are reading or talking about.) If you have done a related project before, or if you will use your project for overlapping classes, you need to discuss that possiblity with me (usually I will not allow this). For a book-based project, you need to disclose if you have already read the book (usually I will not allow this, either).

If I pass around a sign-in sheet, it is an instance of academic misconduct to sign-in for someone else (or to ask someone to do this for you). Similarly, turning in an assignment for someone else (or asking them to do it for you) is academic misconduct (unless you’ve clearly indicated that you’re absent). Finally, it is an instance of academic dishonesty to claim that you missed a class because of an illness you didn’t have.

I hate writing referrals to SJA, but I do make a policy to reporting anything untoward to them.

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 a (rather unusual) 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 actually cares about these things?

I don’t see the topic of this course as an entirely “academic” undertaking; honestly, I have no 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, forget it; that’s not what this class is about. What I myself would like is for both of us to come out of the course 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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