Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Ethics and computer science

The current issue of Crossroads - the ACM student magazine - is on ethics and computer science. Since it isn't available online (?!) I wanted to highlight a few bits that struck me.

The ethical "case studies" included software piracy and privacy issues for data mining and database security - the two topics I most often hear technologists bring up as evidence they are aware of social issues and computing. But, really, the question of social ethics is much broader than that and I, for one, would like to see greater exploration of ethics and the role of computing in daily life.

In an opinion piece, Don Gotterbarn suggests that one reason computer scientists should consider social issues is because their actions directly impact other people, and with power comes responsibility. Pretty reasonable and straightforward. Unfortunately, in order to make this point he rallies a bunch of catastrophes and implies that people's very lives are on the line. Which is sometimes true, and always important. But without any discussion of more mundane or everyday impacts that computing (in its multitude of forms) has on people's quality of life, it is hard to convince a computer scientist working outside DARPA why she should care about doing the very best she can. And it makes it harder still to convince anyone creating and building and pushing new technologies that the ethical reach of their work is simultaneously much closer and farther reaching than they might suppose.

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