Sunday, July 11, 2010

Does Computing Ethics Have to be Negative?

It seems that most of the time when we discuss "computing and society", especially in educational settings, we talk about ethics. For a long time I have had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I do believe that we need to talk more about societal issues, and if ethics gets the conversation going - good. On the other hand, conversations about ethics lean towards discussing negative events - either those that have occurred or those that could occur. If we focus on negative issues much of the time, then it doesn't help computing put its best foot forward to ... anyone.

In the July issue of the Communications of the ACM there is a Viewpoint article on Computing Ethics by Jason Borenstein about the potential challenges facing the workplace if (as) robots become increasingly commonplace. He makes many good points about the challenges for displaced or deskilled workers, the diminishing of creative opportunity and other important topics that have been discussed before and should probably continue to be discussed.

But I couldn't help coming away thinking that here I had just read another depressing article, another warning, about how computing technology is likely to be used. By one of my peers. I wished that equal time had been given to the positive potential of robotics in the workplace.

Is ethics is by definition negative? I grabbed the weighty (yes, a physical volume) copy of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and looked up "ethics". According to the weighty tome, "ethics" is either a) A set of principles of right conduct b) A theory or a system of moral values c) The study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person; moral philosophy.

Those definitions do not say that ethics is inherently a negative topic. As I read it, ethics is about challenges and choices. This interpretation does not insist that we primarily discuss how things can go wrong. Yet we often choose to do just that. As further frustrating evidence, I pulled 5 college computing ethics textbooks off my shelf - each book discussed problems, problems and more problems.

Can we discuss computing ethics with less of an over riding negativity? If so, why don't we? Is it just more exciting to talk about horror stories?

If  computing ethics is entrenched in the negative, for whatever reason, then why is the curricular (or media for that matter) topic "computing and society" so often only about ethics? Can we talk about positive societal computing issues in an exciting motivating way? Is positive equated with boring???

A colleague recently told me that a focus on positive computing stories was likely to give a false sense of "feel good".  Is that how we feel about ourselves?


  1. Lisa, I disagree with your colleague that it would just be feel-good. Yes, there needs to be some discussion of problems caused by unethical choices. But, don't students need a positive example to follow? Even more importantly, don't they need a personal connection to someone who is a positive role model?

  2. Hi Matt,

    Yes, this is exactly what I am suggesting. Balance is needed, and the positive role models and situations which seem to be getting insufficient press, are very important. You are right on target with your comment that the personal connection is critical. A personal connection can even be virtual (meaning you never actually meet that person though they are as real as you and I) and still have a tremendous positive influence on someone.