ECS 188-1 and 188-2 – Winter 2017 – Ethics in an Age of Technology – Course Information

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


Waiting List

Each section is capped at 24 students, and we have about 15 people on waiting list for each section. So if you are not sure you want to take this class this term, please be kind and drop right away, to make space for others.


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 say 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: Quizzes are not announced, but most days class 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, (2) take the final exam, and (3) 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.


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.

Each day, you must bring that day’s reading(s) to class. Bring it either as a hardcopy or on a tablet or e-reader. You may not use a conventional laptop or smart phone during class. You will almost certainly want to mark up readings as you read them. Students often don’t understand readings or can’t remember them. While sometimes a reading may be genuinely hard (nobody would claim that reading Martin Heidegger or Hans Jonas is easy), but, at least for native speakers of English, I think the real problem is that people read when they are distracted. It doesn’t work. Separate yourself from whatever might be distracting you. The media you read on also matters. Trying to read a challenging essay on a phone is insane. A monitor might not be much better.

When you read, make sure you know the author’s name and, hopefully, at least a tiny bit about his or her history. Know roughly when the piece you’re reading was written. If you don’t know any words you encounter, look them up. You can’t understanding writing when you don’t know the words. Make sure you genuinely understand the ideas the author is making. I won’t be real interested in your opinion on a topic until you’ve demonstrate an understand of the author’s.


Proofread all writing for clarity, coherence, organization, diction, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and typesetting. Write, rewrite, rewrite again. Please don’t turn in first drafts. While you won’t write all that much in this class, I expect you to write in a manner consistent with being an upper-division student at a decent US university.

If you’re used to teachers who ignore “low-level” English issues because your ideas are all that matters, or some similar nonsense, forget it. First, good ideas are inextricably tied to good expression of them. The notion that there’s much of a distinction between good ideas and good expression of them is philosophically and experientially suspect. Second, it’s kind of rude to subject a busy person to poor writing. And rudeness and ethics are, if not siblings, at least close cousins. But if neither of those reasons resonate with you, feel free to consider it part of my odd, OCD character that I get distracted by bad writing and bad typesetting to the point that I simply won’t be able to attend to whatever meaning you might intend if it’s encased in by ugly typesetting or faulty English mechanics.

All written assignments done outside of class must be typeset. While scholarly work in academia should normally be done in LaTeX, it is embarrassingly convenient for you to turn in softcopy in Word or OpenDocument format, because of its convenient annotation features. So please submit Word/OpenDocument formatted files (a .docx or .odt extension) or, alternatively, a LaTeX-produced pdf file.

Your typesetting must use justified text (no ragged-right margins) and may not use a monospaced or sans-serif font (e.g., Courier or Arial). When I see a page of ragged-right Arial text, for example, all I can really see is a bunch of ugly, jagged lines. It won’t be graded.

Some further typesetting problems drive me crazy and simply should not be done: typewriter quotes ("this" instead of “this”); typewriter apostrophes (“the author's essay” instead of “the author’s essay”) and wrong dash lengths (you’re all smart enough to learn the difference between an em-dash, en-dash, and hyphen). If you missed some English grammar rule (e.g., that vs. which), please look it up. It also drives me crazy when students refer to the authors by their first name, as though they were personal friends of yours.


Each day, unless I indicate otherwise, please arrange your desks in a circle before class begins. Put your name card in front of your desk. I can’t actually recognize human faces and the name cards are my little trick so that, eventually, I start to feel like I know who you are. Sitting in the same position each class is also helpful for me. Also, never change your clothes or cut your hair.

For a discussion-based 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.

Mobile phones brought to class should be turned off or put in a silent (not just vibrate) mode. (Better yet, leave the things at home, or discard them with other electronic waste.)


For a discussion-based class like ours, attendance is important. For a single absence due to an illness, you do not need to provide any documentation beyond an email saying that you were sick. For any subsequent medical absence, make sure to provide documentation.

If you know you will miss some class, please let me know in advance.

Academic Misconduct

In a course in ethics, it would be particularly ironic if people are dishonest. But cheating seems to have become rampant, so I have to speak to this.

All writing you do must be entirely your own (you can ask a friend or writing instructor 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. All materials you significantly use must be referenced. (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 possibility with me. For a book-based project, you need to disclose when you request the project if you have already read some or all of the book.

It is an instance of academic misconduct to ask or tell someone in the other section of my class about whether or not there’s a quiz, or what is on it. 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. 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). It’s an instance of academic dishonesty to claim that you missed a class because of an illness if you weren’t sick.

I hate writing referrals to SJA, but I do so, without exception, in case of any suspected misconduct.

Cheat-implies-F policy: If you engage in any form of academic misconduct in this class, either by your own admission or SJA finding, I will assign you an “F” grade in the class. By taking this class with me, you are agreeing to this policy.

While I myself think that an F course grade is a pretty minor penalty relative to the importance of academic misconduct (after all, students normally get to retake any class they fail), the cheat-implies-F policy is more draconian than what is routinely done by UCD instructors, which is only to assign an F or zero grade for the one particular work item where misconduct occurred. Some faculty think this is all they are allowed to do. It is not true.

Final Thoughts

If everyone comes to class having done the reading (or watched the video or whatever) and feeling ready and eager to discuss it, the class works well. Otherwise—maybe not! As with any seminar-format class, you and I share the responsibility for making the class work. Please take your responsibility in this connection as seriously as I do.

The class is a rather unusual opportunity: where else are you invited to stop, step back, and explore the (often grave) ethical issues that we face as technologists and human beings? And with a 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 “merely” or entirely “academic”; in fact, I have no patience for moral philosophy as an academic discipline stripped of the imperative to 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, a little better, wiser, or more socially engaged. That’s a lot to hope for from a class. Let’s see if we can make it so.

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