Computers and Human Values (CS009-01)

A First-Year Seminar at Brown University
Department of Computer Science, Fall 2004
Roger B. Blumberg (
Last & Final Update: December 16, 2004

Course Outline: Fall 2004 || Fall 2003 Course Materials || CS009 Reference Page || Fall 2003 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 (e.g. robotics, networks, and 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 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 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). 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 (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 9:30-10:30 a.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: Who Am I?; or, The Triumph of Robotics and the Nature of Our Humanity.
September 7th - October 14th

September 7 & 9: Introduction to the Seminar. Why a First-Year Seminar about computers and "values"? Why mix readings new and old? Why so many questions?

September 14: 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 21 : 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 23: 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 28: The Human Condition I: What is the difference between "the human condition" and "human nature" according to Arendt's view and your own? Why be concerned with either of these ideas? What is the most noticeable difference between the perspectives of Moravec and Arendt? Do you think Arendt's historical arguments should matter to someone in Moravec's position? Do you think Moravec's research and opinions should effect the way we read and evaluate Arendt?

September 30: The Human Condition II: What is Arendt's theory of the Public and the Private? 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? What is the importance of her distinction between "work" and "labor" and does technological advance since 1958 call any of Arendt's distinctions or claims into question?

October 5: 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)? Is Moravec's perspective in ROBOT an example of what Arendt calls the "Cartesian solution" to "the perplexity inherent in the discovery of the Archimedean point"? What is Arendt's perspective on the future of the human affairs?

October 7: 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 12: 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 14: 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 19th - November 9th

October 19: 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 21: 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 26: 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 28: 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"?

November 2: 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?

November 4: 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 9: 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?

November 11: Democracy, Democracies and the Internet. What are the issues raised by Cherny, Lippmann, and Sunstein that seem most pressing in considering the future of democracy in the US and in the world today? What is the difference between the set of issues discussed in units 1 and 2 of the Seminar, and how do they compare with issues you consider matters of "ethics"?

Required Reading:

Secondary Reading:

Part Three: What Should I Do?; or, Computers and the Nature of Ethics.
November 16th - December 9th

November 16: 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 18: 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 23: Langford III: Is there anything "new" about digital life from an ethical perspective? How do characteristics of internet communication like anonymity and uncontrollability affect attempts to analyze the ethics of communication?

November 30: Langford IV: What is privacy and why is it valued? Do you consider privacy a right or a condition?

December 2: Computers and Human Values: Contemporary Debates I.

December 7: Computers and Human Values: Contemporary Debates I.

December 9: Paper Writing Workshop in Computers and Human Values.

December 16 (Thursday): Final Exam (Noon, in 506 CIT)

Required Reading:

Secondary Reading:

Home People 2004 Roger B. Blumberg and Brown University