Computers and Human Values (CS009-01)

A First-Year Seminar at Brown University
Department of Computer Science, Fall 2005
Roger B. Blumberg (
Last and Final Update: December 15, 2005

Course Outline: Fall 2005 || Fall 2004 Course Materials || CS009 Reference Page || Fall 2004 Final Exam


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 accepted ways of thinking about and evaluating those lives and practices. Simple examples are e-mail's effects on our ideas about about communication, computer networks' effects on our ideas about commerce and politics, and desktop computing's effect on our ideas about work. 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 and discuss contemporary works motivated by recent developments in computer science (e.g. in robotics, networks, and computer security) and will find that each of these 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. Therefore, in addition to the contemporary visions we will read and discuss texts from a "pre-digital" age that raise (and answer) the same questions in different ways. We'll conclude each unit of the course with a second contemporary reading, and see whether/how our attitudes about either the questions or the answers have changed in light of having tied these contemporary works to a historical or philosophical tradition.


Every student in the Seminar is required to read and contribute to our discussions of the texts. During the semester each student will present the required reading in class at least once, take class notes for the group at least once, and report on current debates/discussions in the professional literature at least once. In addition, 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). In addition, each student is required to read a book from the Secondary Reading lists, with a partner, and present an analysis either in class or in writing, before December 1. Finally, there will be a three-hour final exam.

All of the required texts are available at the Symposium Bookstore, 240 Westminster Street (downtown), and they (along with a number of 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 10:30 - 11:50 a.m. My office is 335 CIT and though I'm in most days, morning and afternoon, my official office hours for the course are Tuesday and Thursday, from 1:30 - 2:30 p.m. My office phone number is x37619 and I can be reached easily by e-mail at


Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Part One: The Human and the Post-Human; or, The Triumph of Robotics and the Nature of Our Humanity.
September 6th - October 11th

September 6 & 8: Introduction to the Seminar. Why a First-Year Seminar about computers and "values"? Why think computers have any more impact on what we value and how we value it than refrigerators? Why mix readings new and old? Why so many questions?!?!?!

September 13: Moravec I: Is Moravec's "mind" recognizable?.

September 15: Moravec II. Intelligence, the Turing test, Robopets, and the measure of Human abilities, achievements, and needs.

September 20: Moravec III. The "Age of Robots" and the "Age of Mind." We'll finish our discussion of Moravec with guest Chad Jenkins.

September 22: Arnold I: Robots, Humans and the Issue of Culture.

September 27: Culture and Anarchy II Sweetness and Light, and the etymology of "culture".

September 29: Culture and Anarchy III. Culture as Extraordinary vs. Culture as Ordinary, and Arnold's critique of 19th century and contemporary life.

October 4: Rosh Hashannah, Ramadan, and The Post-Human Condition: How's that for a title?

October 6: Rebuilt I: The Significance of the Cyborg

October 11: Rebuilt II.

Required Texts for Part One:

Secondary Readings:

Part Two: How Should We Live?; or Where Do You Want to Go Today?
October 11th - November 10th

October 13: Being Digital I.

October 18: Being Digital II

October 20: Being Digital III

October 25: Marx's Technology and Ours

October 27: Marx II. The Prolitarians and the Communists in an Industrial Age, and in a Digital Age.

November 1: Marx III. Reading Marx During the Cold War and reading Marx in 2005.

November 3: Technology, Privacy and Freedom.

November 8: Minefields in "The Transparent Society"

November 10: Evaluating The Transparent Society, the "Singapore Question", and the Negroponte-Marx- Brin rollercoaster ride.

Required Texts for Part Two:

Secondary Readings:

Part Three: Technology and Democracy
November 15th - December

November 15: Cherny's "Next Deal"

November 17: Cherny II: Technology, Politics and Individualism Old & New.

November 22: Lippmann I: The World of Public Opinion.

November 29: Lippmann II: Democracy, "old" Media, and "The End of News?"

December 1: Lippmann III: Our World and Public Opinion.

December 6: Sunstein I: The Digital, the "Daily Me", and the Requirements of a Healthy Democracy.

December 8: Sunstein II: The Future of Public Life and Public Opinion.

December 14th (Wednesday): The Final Exam.
December 15th (Thursday): The Other Final Exam

Required Texts for Part Three:

Secondary Reading:

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