Notes for Terrell Ward Bynum and Simon Rogerson “Editors' Introduction: Ethics in the Information Age”

Key concepts: cybernetics, policy vacuum.

Related theorists: Walter Maner, James Moor, Donn Parke, JosephWeizenbaum, Norbert Wiener.

Editors' Introduction: Ethics in the Information Age

Introductory quotation from Wiener.

The Information Revolution
(1) Each of these technologies, when first created, brought about social and ethical revolutions. Information and communication technology (ICT) is no exception.
(1-2) Computer technology, said
Moor, is almost a “universal tool” because it is “logically malleable” and therefore can be shaped and molded to perform nearly any task. . . . It is clear that public policy-makers, leaders of business and industry, teachers, social thinkers – indeed, every citizen – should have a keen interest in the social and ethical impacts of information and communication technology.

Computer Practitioners and Professional Responsibility

ICT and Human Values

Fear of policy vacuums for temporal constraints of emergent critical production and policy.

Philosophers described policy vacuums surrounding technologies too rapidly emerging for critical reflection to manage, calling for new social and ethical policies; they recognize critical tasks are hindered by biases favoring entrenched groups who deploy the very technologies in question, which Postman calls technopoly.

(2-3) Technology changes so rapidly that new possibilities emerge before the social consequences can be fathomed (Rogerson and Bynum 1995). New social/ethical policies for the information age, therefore, are urgently needed to fill rapidly multiplying “policy vacuums” (Moor 1985).

Human relationships

Privacy and anonymity

Intellectual property and ownership


Social justice

Government and democracy

A primary goal of computer ethics

(7) The vast majority of such issues are still unknown, and they will gradually come into view as powerful and flexible ICT makes new things possible. A primary goal of computer ethics is to identify and analyze resulting “policy vacuums” as well as to help formulate new social/ethical policies to deal with them in just and responsible ways.

Computer Ethics: Some Historical Milestones

1940s and 1950s

Credit to Weiner for defining computer ethics.

(7) Computer ethics as a field of academic study was founded by MIT professor Norbert Wiener during World War Two (early 1940s) while helping to develop an anti-aircraft cannon capable of shooting down fast warplanes. The engineering challenge of this project caused Wiener and some colleagues to create a new field of research that Wiener called “cybernetics” – the science of information feedback systems.
(7) In 1950 Wiener published his monumental computer ethics book.
The Human Use of Human Beings, which not only established him as the founder of computer ethics, but – far more importantly – laid down a comprehensive computer ethics foundation which remains today (more than half a century later) a powerful basis for computer ethics research and analysis.

(8) In the mid-1960s, computer scientist
Donn Parker began to examine unethical and illegal uses of computers by computer professionals.

Weizenbaum was concerned that an “information processing model” of human beings was reinforcing an already growing tendency among scientists, and even the general public, to see humans as mere machines.

Temptation to follow Maner conducting conference workshops and presentations to promote critical programming.

(9) In the mid-1970s, philosopher (and later computer science professor) Walter Maner began to use the term “computer ethics” to refer to that field of applied ethics dealing with ethical problems aggravated, transformed, or created by computer technology. . . . Maner's trailblazing course, plus his Starter Kit and the many conference workshops he conducted, had a significant impact upon the teaching of computer ethics across America.

1980s and 1990s

Moor article appears during first turn toward computing by philosophers and humanists.

(9-10) In 1985, James Moor published his now-classic article “What Is Computer Ethics?”; and in that same year, Deborah Johnson published Computer Ethics, the first textbook – and for more than a decade, the defining textbook – in the field. Also in the mid-1980s there were relevant books published in psychology and sociology. For example, Sherry Turkle wrote The Second Self (1984), a book on the impact of computing on the human psyche; and Judith Perrolle produced Computers and Social Change: Information, Property and Power (1987), a sociological approach to computing and human values.

Overview of This Book

“Editors' Introduction: Ethics in the Information Age.” eds. Terrell Ward Bynum and Simon Rogerson. Computer Ethics and Professional Responsibility. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. Print.