CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, September 6th & 8th --
Roger B. Blumberg
Introduction to the Seminar
Why a First-Year Seminar?
- The "New Curriculum" and the original "Modes of Inquiry" courses
- The logic of undergraduate liberal arts education
- The experiment of First-Year Seminars at Brown
Why a Seminar on "Computers and Human Values"?
Motivations for CS009 (section 1): or, Why this approach to
- Consider the role/effects of computer technology in/on contemporary
life; or, why not "Refrigerators and Human Values"?
Until the 1980s, a course like this would have seemed ridiculous.
Even had computers in the 1950s
and 1960s been a million-fold more powerful than they were, they were
by nearly everyone who used them as simply large specialized machines. The
that the computer imposed (or would impose) itself on our lives in such
as to transform our value system(s) was not a common one. With the rise of
"personal" computing, computer networks, and extraordinary advances in the
computing power, it is clear that the
of computers is far greater than that of the hammer (the traditional
example of a
"neutral" technology) or even the automobile; and thus the consequences
of our use of computers seems a reasonable thing to question.
- Consider the rise of the
"information sector" of the economy.
Your generation is the first to
have been schooled in the midst of widespread and well-funded national
initiatives to bring computers into schools -- you are probably more
that accompanied this phenomenon than we are at the University. Educational
institutions are not alone in having had to respond to
the effects of an "information economy" on the nature of work in
contemporary and future societies; but, we might questions how best
to describe what these effects and responses have been.
- Consider how technology generally and computers in particular
have transformed the answers to traditional "big" questions about
ourselves and our relationships with one another (and our environment).
Reading and answering Kant's famous questions, we can understand how computers have
helped to shape our sense of our own abilities and prospects. It is arguable
that as the power and presence of
computers in our lives continues to grow, our answers to these and other fundamental
questions will change, and this raises issues about the sorts of
values implicit in these changes.
- When I was in college (1979-1983) it was the natural scientists
who were writing the grand narratives about the nature &
future of humans
and societies, based on their (experimental) work with animals
(at best) or components of organisms (e.g. neurons, DNA, etc.).
With the end of the Cold War, and Vaclav Havel's claims about
end of the modern era, I noticed that computer scientists,
rather than "natural" scientists, began to write in this genre.
But unlike the approach of the natural scientists, the computer
scientists were less interested in explaining the human
than in downplaying the significance of the human; and
these narratives call into question our basic convictions about
the self, society and subjectivity generally (e.g. is human
consciousness "real" and is it any big deal even if it is real?).
- Computers have extended the "man-made" into the realm of
simulation, and this has had an enormous impact on
our sense & value of "the real", "the authentic" and "the
and the strangeness of
a simulation of something that never existed in the first place!
What are the politics of simulation? For example, do you
care about distinguishing communities like Celebration from
the places you've lived?
- The seductive and wildly time-consuming aspects of computer
technologies (whether you're a programmer or just a surfer) have
made it increasingly difficult to ground value judgements in
terms not dictated (or wrecked) by the technologies themselves
(e.g. consider attitudes about Napster et al, and attitudes
about private property generally; attitudes about the
Homeland Security Act and personal privacy generally). What
language should we use to discuss our principles, or the
things we care about, in the face of rapid technological
- Most of the courses you've taken (and perhaps will take)
concern 1) what to believe, and/or 2) how to behave. With the
rise of a technological society, and especially one in which
computers allow many people to customize everything from
fonts to communities, it's important to give some attention
to a third concern: what to care about.
- Finally, the concept of the "cyborg" is losing much of its
force as it becomes difficult to distinguish humans and
cyborgs in anything but an ad hoc sense. When you consider
our use of personal computers and neuropharmaceuticals (together
or separately!) you see that perhaps the natural/artificial
distinction isn't what it was for our parents. So this course
is not only about computers and value judgements, but also about
the future of what the "human" will and should signify in
a discussion of values.
With all this in mind, let's have a look at the
We'll begin Thursday's class by talking about Ken Miller's address
at Convocation, and the ways that science and technology recast our
sense of ourselves. We'll have help from a recent issue of RISKS
and the IEEE SPECTRUM that, in combination, clearly show how
technology can change our ideas of human significance. This will
be a perfect introduction to our reading of Moravec's ROBOT.
We'll also spend a good deal of time on Thursday on introductions.
In addition to saying something about who you are and where you come
from, I'll ask you to answer the following question: If your essay
for Brown had needed to be about the most significant difference
between the world in 1904 and the world of 2004, what would you
have written about?
For Tuesday the 13th:: Read at least the first 5 chapters
of Moravec's ROBOT.
Back to the Syllabus
© 2005 Roger B. Blumberg