In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg built an app to connect Harvard undergrads to one another. By 2006, it was available to anyone over the age of 13. Soon thereafter, his Facebook (FB) social media firm was animated by the concept that connectivity was a human right for the world’s billions. FB is now visited by almost 3 billion distinct users each month. The firm has become a monopoly, counting Instagram and WhatsApp among its divisions. (Further details appear in Chapters 11 and 17 of Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.)
FB’s dominance has led to serious problems which are well known.Its news feed widely shares toxic material — misinformation, hate speech, and fake news. People post private information which FB exploits commercially through surveillance capitalism. Fake social media participants constructed by Russia in the 2016 US presidential election and other elections has skewed the results. Children’s addiction to social media harms their sense of self-worth and their physical and mental health and well-being.
C. Dianne Martin is Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at George Washington University, and Adjunct Professor in the School of Information, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has been teaching Computers and Society since 1983.
I was delighted to receive email early this year from Prof. Ron Baecker, whose Computers and Society class at the University of Maryland in 1972 made me see that I could productively combine my previous studies in the social sciences and humanities with my new career in information technology. I was therefore eager to read his latest book, Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.
In documenting his personal journey from dreams and exuberant optimism about computer technology to pessimism, nightmares, and fear caused by the emerging consequences of the tech explosion of the past 75 years. Ron has provided a comprehensive historical sweep of the computer revolution. In Part I he chronicles the high hopes of early developers to create technological solutions to disparities in healthcare and education, to increase creativity, collaboration, and community, and to provide greater power and convenience to all.
My blog post of May 18 suggested that some of the COVID-forced changes in work will survive past-COVID: “Large companies will shrink their office space footprint. Landlords will suffer economically, spaces will be vacant, and prices will drop. Many employees will work at home far more frequently than they did pre-pandemic. Many employees will no longer have a permanent desk; rather, they will grab a free desk when they are in the office. There will be less business travel, with more business conducted via teleconference.Progressive conferences will allow for both on-site and virtual attendance. Reductions in travel by [land and air will help] the environment.”
Nosedive was the first episode of the third season of the British science fiction television anthology Black Mirror. In this episode, everyone has a mobile phone which, when pointed at another person, reveals his or her name and rating. Everyone has a rating, which ranges from 0 to 5. The following happens continually as you are walking down a street or along the corridor of a building. You give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ to each person you pass, based on your instantaneous impression of that person and the nature of the encounter, no matter how trivial or quick the encounter is. A ‘thumps up’ raises that person’s rating a tiny bit; a ‘thumbs down’ lowers it. The other person concurrently rates you. Ratings determine one’s status in life, and the ability to get perks such as housing and travel. Therefore, people are on a never-ending, stressful, and soul-destroying quest to raise their online ratings for real-life rewards. Heroine Lacie desires a better apartment; she has a meltdown as she deals with unsurmountable pressure in the context of her childhood best friend’s wedding.
Every Computer Science student should get significant exposure to the social, political, legal, and ethical issues raised by the accelerating progress in the development and use of digital technologies.
The standard approach is to offer one undergraduate course, typically called Computers and Society or Computer Ethics. I have done this during the current term at Columbia University, using my new textbook, Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019). We meet twice a week for 75 minutes. In class, I present key topics covered in the book, and welcome a number of guest speakers who present their own experiences and points of view. Every class is interactive, as I try to get the students to express their own ideas. There have been four assignments: a policy brief, a book report, a debate, and a research paper. Such courses are typically not required by major research universities, which is a mistake, but they are often required by liberal arts colleges.
My textbook — Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives — may be used in a variety of courses and contexts, but is intended primarily for use by Computer Science (CS) Departments, as they attempt to educate and train tomorrow’s software professionals, managers, and IT leaders. If we want to monitor how well departments are doing this job, we should ask is if they are sensitizing their students to the ethical responsibilities of the profession. It is useful to contrast the attitudes and performance of CS Departments, typically situated in science faculties, with departments in Faculties of Engineering.
Concern over ethics in Engineering began after several major disasters late in the 19th century and early in the 20th century, notably several bridge failures and the Boston molasses disaster, in which a flood or molasses wreaked havoc on nearby building and train systems. There already had been created professional societies such as the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. These societies then moved quickly to introduce Codes of Ethics and requirements for licensing and accreditation, which ultimately caused university departments and faculties to include some learning about and practice with ethical concerns as part of their curricula. A later development was the creation in 1954 by the National Society of Professional Engineers of a Board of Ethical Review.