Computers and Human Values (CS009-01)

A First-Year Seminar at Brown University
Department of Computer Science, Fall 2003
Roger B. Blumberg (
Last Update: December 20, 2003

Course Outline: Fall 2003 || Fall 2002 Course Materials || CS009 Reference Page || Final Exam

Introduction :

One of the most fascinating aspects of technological innovation is the way it can transform not only the lives and practices of individuals and institutions, but also the accepted language for thinking about and evaluating those lives and practices. Electronic mail, to take a simple example, has transformed both the practice of correspondence in many societies, and the standards by which many people now evaluate written communication. Indeed, for those who grow up after these transformations have taken place, the older languages or standards for evaluation may seem antiquated, ridiculous, or even incomprehensible.

In this course we will read contemporary works motivated by recent developments in computer science (robotics, networks, and computer security) and will find that each book raises fundamental questions not only about the future of computing, but the future of societies and human beings as well. Although the technological developments that prompt these questions may be new, the questions themselves are not -- most have been debated and written about by students and scholars for hundreds if not thousands of years. In this course, therefore, the contemporary visions will be followed in each unit by older texts, written in times very different than our own, that raise (and answer) the same question in different ways. We'll conclude each unit with a second contemporary reading, and discuss whether/how our attitudes about either the question or the answer(s) have changed in light of having tied these contemporary works to a historical or philosophical tradition.

Requirements :

Every student is required to read and contribute to our discussions of the texts in the Seminar. A short paper that summarizes your response to the texts and your own answer(s) to the unit's fundamental question(s) will be due at the conclusion of each unit (i.e. three short papers are required). There will be a three-hour final exam that will require you to write several (very) short essays. Finally, a semester-long project of your choice, that involves the computer, is required.

All of the required texts are available at the Brown University Bookstore, and they and the secondary readings will be on reserve in the Library . This syllabus will serve as a link to electronic texts, both required and recommended, as well as course notes, once the semester is underway..

Where and When :

CS009 will meet in 506 CIT, in the Computer Science Department, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1-2:30. My office is 502 CIT and though I'm in most mornings, my official office hours for the course are Tuesday and Thursday, from 2:30-4:00. My office phone number is x37619 and I can be reached most easily by e-mail at


Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Part One: Who Am I?; or, The Triumph of Robotics and the Nature of Our Humanity.
September 2nd - October 2nd

September 2 &4: Introduction to the Seminar. Why a First-Year Seminar about computers and "values"? Why mix readings new and old? Why so many questions?

September 9 : Moravec I. Reading for the plot, reading to identify the argument(s), and reading with an attention to rhetoric. Criticizing arguments and reading critically. What does Moravec mean by "Mind" and what is the difference between his book and a work of science fiction that envisions the same thing?

September 11 : Moravec II. The Turing test and the relationship between measurements of computing power and claims about "intelligence". What is Moravec's conception of "being human" and how can/should we evaluate such a view?

September 16 : Moravec III. The "Age of Robots" and the "Age of Mind." Complexity, Simulation, Explanation, Justification, Robopets, Respect, and Otherness (!). Continuing (and concluding) our discussions inspired by the last chapters of Moravec and the Robopet exercise, we'll question the nature/measure of complexity and humanity, as well as the relationship between simulating and explaining a natural phenomenon.

September 18: The Human Condition I: What would Arendt's response to Moravec have been? Is it reasonable to compare texts written at different times with such different points of view/departure? What are Arendt's theses and how to they relate to your sense/experience of the essence(s) of humanity? (How is your experience of reading Arendt, a more "difficult" book, different than your experience of reading Moravec?)

September 23 : The Human Condition II: What is Arendt's theory of the Public and the Private? (How) Does her use of writers like Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau and Machiavelli contribute to her argument(s)? How does her view of the the role/essence of the Social compare with your own?

September 25 : The Human Condition III: What is "alienation" and why/how does Arendt speak of it in discussing the "Modern Age"? How does Arendt's concept of "thought" compare with the way "thought" was discussed in Moravec (and could a robot be capable of "thought" in this sense)? How do Arendt's and Moravec's assessments of the future compare from the point of view of "experience"?

September 30 : The Post-Human Condition I: What is Hayle's theory of what characterizes the "post-human" and (how) does it "explain" features of (your) contemporary life? Which of the issues raised by Moravec are addressed by Hayles' view(s)? Which of the issues raised by Arendt are addressed by Hayles?

October 2 : The Post-Human Condition II: Reading/working through difficult texts that make references to other texts about which you're completely clueless. How do the examples and analyses in these chapters support the views/arguments developed in the Prologue?

October 7th and 9th : Moravec's "Exes" and Hayles' "Posthumans". What do you think Arendt would say of Hayles' thesis about the coming of the posthuman? (How) Does the "semiotic" analysis discussed in chapter 10 help with evaluating all of the texts we've read so far? After Moravec, Arendt, and Hayles, how would you characterize the (human) "self"?

Required Texts for Part One:

Secondary Readings:

Part Two: How Should We Live?; or, The Networked Society and the Nature of Democracy.
October 14th - November 4th

October 14th: Cherny I: The New Deal, The Next Deal and the political implications of the Internet. What is the significance of computer networks in a democracy? (How) Has "cyberspace" transformed political institutions/consciousness according to Cherny? What is the meaning of Croly's "Jeffersonian ends by Hamiltonian means?"

October 16th: Cherny II: Technology, Politics and Individualism Old & New. What do you think of Cherny's argument for a "Next Deal"? What difference does the technology make in thinking about "choice" and "Hamiltonian ends by Jeffersonian means"?

October 21st: Lippmann I: The World of Public Opinion. How does Lippmann's text exemplify the qualities Hayles (and others) attribute to "the liberal subject"? What aspects of Lippmann's analysis does Cherny ignore/deny/contradict, and to whom are you more sympathetic?

October 23rd: Lippmann II: Democracy and "old" Media. How does the history of media inform discussions of politics, and specifically of democracy? What is the meaning and significance of "the manufacture of consent?" Can Lippmann speak to "a generation found in cyberspace"?

October 28th: Lippmann III: Our World and Public Opinion. How does Lippmann's "Buying Public" compare with our own? How does Lippmann's characterization of the (contemporary) public realm compare with Arendt's? How does Lippmann's use of Jefferson and Hamilton compare with Cherny's? If you rewrote Lippmann's book today, what would you omit, revise, add?

October 30th: Sunstein I: The Digital, the "Daily Me", and the Requirements of Democracy. How does Sunstein's characterization of the essentials of democracy compare with Cherny and Lippmann? Is there politics on campus and does it reflect Sunstein's concerns? What is wrong with Cherny's "choice" perspective according to Sunstein?

November 4th: Sunstein II: The Future of Public Life and Public Opinion. What is the connection between computer networks and the "free speech principle" that Sunstein is worried about? Do Sunstein's proposals (in ch. 8) strike you as reasonable/desirable? Are there better proposals and constructions that would solve the problems he envisions? Can/should academic computer science do anything in the public realm?

Required Reading:

Secondary Reading:

Part Three: What Should I Do?; or, Computers and the Nature of Ethics.
November 6th - December 9th

November 6: Langford I: How does a technology exemplify social and/or political values? How would Cherny, Lippmann and Sunstein respond to Deborah Johnson's questions?

November 11: Langford II: What distinguishes ethics from politics and epistemology? Is there any reason to think that "internet ethics" presents fundamentally different dilemmas than, say, "medical ethics"?

November 13 & 18: Langford III: What distinguishes ethics from the law? How are values like privacy and security justified and does technology effect not just circumstances but justifications as well?

November 20: Smart & Williams I: What do the varieties of utilitarianism have in common? How will a utilitarian handle the various ehtical dilemmas we've encountered in Langford so far? Is there anything that a utilitarian form of justification can't handle satisfactorily?

December 2: Smart & Williams II: What's wrong with consequentialism? What is your reaction to Williams famous examples (pp. 97-99)? With what can we replace utilitarianism?

December 4: Langford IV: Ethically speaking, has the Internet changed everything? Has it changed anything? Are voluntary codes preferable to laws? Would a true posthuman answer the questions on p. 238 differently than Smart, Williams, Lippman or Sunstein?

December 9: Computers & Human Values: Contemporary Debates.

December 11: Computers & Human Values: Projects and Papers.

December 15: Final Exam (9 a.m. in 506 CIT)

Required Reading:

Secondary Reading:

Home People 2003 Roger B. Blumberg and Brown University