Digital Ethics in Chicago

I’m looking forward to participating in the Sixth Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics which will be in Chicago on Friday, November 4.

The keynote speaker will be Lilie Chouliaraki, author of The Spectatorship of Suffering and Professor of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics.

Featured Speakers:
Whitney Phillips | Assistant Professor, Mercer University | Author of This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture
Ryan Milner | Assistant Professor, College of Charleston | Author of The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media. Co-author with Whitney Phillips of a new bookBetween Play and Hate: Antagonism, Mischief, and Humor Online.
Max Schrems | Privacy Activist | Founder of Europe v Facebook | Author of Kämpf um deine Daten (Fight for your Data) and Private Videoüberwachung(Private Video Surveillance Law)

Meg Leta Jones | Assistant Professor in Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology Program | Author of Ctrl+Z: The Right to be Forgotten.

Julie Carpenter | Author of Culture and Human-Robot Interaction in Militarized Spaces: A War Story.

Digital Ethics Symposium
Friday, November 4, 2016
Loyola University Chicago
Lewis Towers | Regents Hall | 16th Floor
111 E. Pearson
8:30 a.m – 5:00 p.m

Technologies of Control & Desire Notes

The first class discussion & lecture of the Civic Media course began with the suitably vague title Technologies of Control and Desire. The purpose of this lecture was to introduce technology into the discussion of ethics and communication. The idea was to talk about the ways in which technologies have been seen both as a source of salvation and as a threat to the society in which they are introduced.

Unsurprisingly, in my eagerness I forgot to talk about the first slide which was a advertisement for an early television remote control.

Eugene PolleyOften the invention of the remote control is credited to Eugene Polley (1915 – 2012) it was an invention that had to happen. People didn’t want to have to stand up to change the channel. What we tend not to think about is that the invention of the remote control allowed for many changes. Thousands of channels would not be able to compete or exist without a remote control. Also advertising was forced to adapt once people could effortlessly change channels or lower the volume. Eugene Polley didn’t create the couch potato but he certainly made life easier for this group.

The first section of the presentation was a very, very brief introduction to technology ethics in order to arrive at the discussion of whether we have free choice or not. Are we choosing to do what we do based on ethical decision making? Or maybe on chance? Or maybe something else? What is the role of technology in forming our worlds and “assisting” our choices.

I included a quote from the composer Stravinsky

In America I had arranged with a gramophone firm to make some of my music. This suggested the idea that I should compose something whose length should be determined by the capacity of the record.

This is a nice illustration where art is no longer necessarily a choice of the creator but rather a decision based on technological limitations. Keeping on the theme of technology I also introduced the idea of technology enabling us to act – or to put it more extremely – technology “forcing” us to act.

To illustrate this I showed them the web page for the iPod Classic which has the line “Your top 40 000”. This refers to the capacity of the device to store 40 000 songs. But how would someone go about collecting so much music? Could it be done legally? Or does this tagline implicitly encourage piracy?

From this point I introduced technological determinism and the idea of choice. Without refuting that we always have choice I gave examples of social and technological mass choices that seem to indicate a high level of determinism.

From this position I pointed out that the way in which technology is accepted depends on the way in which we see it either as a threat or a benefit to our lifestyle. Using weird and wonderful advertisements and technical articles from the past I demonstrated a utopian vision where farmers work from home, students learn without reading and asthma is cured with cigarettes.

In order to demonstrate techno-pessimism I used quotes from Plato (against writing), a snippet against books from Johannes Trithemius’ (1494) In Praise of Scribes

The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper. How long will it last? The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years.

Referencing social media I pointed at George M Beard’s (1881) concern that newspapers and telegraph create nervous disorders by exposing people to “the sorrows of individuals everywhere”

In closing I reminded the audience of Postman’s comparison between Orwell and Huxley’s visions of the future: Orwell was concerned that we would be oppressed by a technology wielding state. Huxley was concerned that we would all be sucked into the shallow pleasures offered by technology. I pointed out that it has become popular to say Huxley has “won” because social media seems to be people settling for shallow pleasures. However, this is not entirely true and states are increasingly using Orwellian means to control those who would engage in deeper discussions that threaten the state.

I finished off with a short video of Morosov’s work (which can be found online here) and a class discussion. The slides I used for the class are online here


Should we just accept plagiarism?

When my mother attempted to teach us manners as a children she would strictly enforce the no-elbows-on-the-table rule. But when we would question her elbows on the table she would reply that she was old enough to know it was wrong. This is a bit how I feel about the news that Zygmunt Bauman has plagiarized texts. From websites no less!

His accuser, Peter Walsh, a University of Cambridge PhD student, said the websites are at times mentioned in passing as sources, but Professor Bauman does not make clear, through quotation marks or indented text, that he is directly reproducing material.

The Times Higher Education article is interesting in that it demonstrates the sensitivity and care it takes for a PhD student to accuse someone of Bauman’s status. Another academic in the article both says that students would have been failed for doing this but everyone is prepared to give Bauman a chance to explain himself. “He suggested that Professor Bauman’s apparent indifference was the result of “generational differences”.”

The list of venerable established scholars who have been caught plagiarizing is surprisingly long. Recently Jane Goodall blamed “chaotic note-taking” for her plagiarism. The sad thing is that I have heard this excuse from students caught plagiarizing. Being caught seems relatively inevitable in a digital age and the excuses everyone uses are equally sad.

Bauman and Goodall are old enough to know plagiarism is wrong. But does this excuse his plagiarism or make it worse? The question we could ask ourselves is plagiarism as well as the no-elbows-on-the-table rule an anachronistic remnant and we should just ignore these rules since everyone is doing it (not just the kids)?


The quote above is from a Slate article The End of the college Essay. The photo is by Kristina Alexanderson and its called Plagiarism. The fun part is that the photo on Vader’s screen is my photo Reaching for my morning fix. Christina uses the photo to discuss what plagiarism is and how a Creative Commons license can help in situations such as this.

Wearable camera takes 2 photos per minute

Lifelogging has been a buzzword for some time now, but its still a cumbersome task for most of us. But this is not going to last long.

One device that’s going to make this all too easy is the Memoto, which has the tag line “Remember every moment.”

The product is small and simple, clip it on and it takes two photos per minute until you take it off. In the promotion video Memoto says: “What if we could build a camera small enough to never be in the way, but smart enough to capture life as we live it.”

The mass of 5 megapixel pictures are stored on Memoto’s storage surface, and include the time and the location where they were taken. Via an app the photo’s are searchable via gps and time.

When the images are stored on the cloud they are organized into moments, represented by the algorithmically chosen most interesting image.

Sure this is a cool toy, its small, light and colorful. But it also raises several ethical implications. Such as:

  • Many of the people around will have no idea they are being photographed by the device
  • People may object in general to having their time and location and image stored
  • What happens if the device carrier walks into sensitive areas such as hospitals, courts, police stations
  • Who controls the images
  • Who accesses the images (legally or illegally)
  • Copyright questions
  • Trade secrets

Despite all these questions the devices are available and will probably be around soon. A day will produce over 1000 pictures – which explains the need for the algorithm to help us sift through the garbage. But even then I suspect that most of us will realize that we live fundamentally boring lives, probably not worth documenting.


Is Spock a Professor of ethics at Oxford?

Podcasts are the best thing since sliced bread. So why is it that so few actually know what they are or how to use them? Strange. Or is it just difficult to break ingrained behavior? But this is not about trying to persuade those who don’t get it but I just want to push the amazing series of podcast being sent now on the BBC Arts & Ideas show.

With a focus on the theme of Change the show presents lectures and a following q&a session from people like Landscape architect Charles Jencks, Neuro-scientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (listening to her now), Psychotherapist Susie Orbach & Economist Aditya Chakrabortty.

All these were great but the lecture that really blew me away was by Professor Julian Savulescu who spoke about the duty of change and the case for human enhancement and genetic selection. What I liked was the way in which he, like some philosophers seem to do, took a logical thinking to its consequences. Most of the time we find it difficult to accept a logical chain of thought. Well ok, I do… I get to the beginning where I can lay out the foundations. A is true, B is true… (and so on) but when drawing out the consequences I often shy away from the obvious as I am steered by an irrational emotion. What a philosopher can do is to dare to think the unthinkable.

With his bold logic, I suspect that Julian Savulescu may actually be Spock.



Academia thrillers

Most people seem to really want to believe in the peaceful co-existance among academics. Most of these people tend not to be in academia. Within this guild there are more political manouverings, illegal moves, moral scandals, alliances formed and broken, betrayals and the occaissional sunshine story to fill a mass of juicy thriller mysteries. And still people want to believe that nothing happens within the ivory tower.

One such affair which stems from my own university is the Gillberg affair which deserves a book of its own. While most of the reporting on this has been in Sweden I was pointed to a well written summary of the affair in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). The open lines of the article are worthy of any thriller:

Over one weekend in May 2004, three researchers in the University of Gothenburg’s department of child and adolescent psychiatry shredded tens of thousands of documents, destroying all data from a 15 year longitudinal study following 60 Swedish children with severe attention deficit disorders.

What became known as the Gillberg affair began in 1996, at a community summer party on the Swedish island of Resö. Among the guests were Leif Elinder, a paediatrician recently returned to Sweden after several years spent working abroad, and Christopher Gillberg, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Gothenburg University.

The article Hyperactivity in children: the Gillberg affair (BMJ  2007;335:370-373, 25 August) by Jonathan Gornall is well written and shows how research politics can get down right dirty and end up in the courts.

One of the main issues was the desire of Professor Gillberg to maintain the anonymity of his data. The reason for this depends upon which camp you follow. Gillberg (and his supporters) claim that the promise of anonymity the researcher gives (and often must give in order to get access) is valid. While the opponents felt that this was a convenient way of hiding possibly bad research.

The legal system, however, paid no heed to Professor Gillberg’s dilemma. Twice in 2003 the Supreme Administrative Court rejected his applications to appeal the decisions allowing Professor Kärfve and Dr Elinder access to the data on the ground that “he lacked any interest in the case that could be acknowledged in law as entitling him to apply for a rehearing of the issue.”

Most people involved in the affair have had their reputations damaged. The group that helped Gillberg, the professor and the Vice Chancellor of the university have all lost court cases and been fined. And yet the view of the Swedish research council speaks volumes:

Professor Gillberg’s work continues. Research funds have continued to flow his way, and in November the Swedish Research Council awarded him a record sum for three years of study into autism.

Professor Gillberg’s words close the article:

“In my view,” wrote Professor Gillberg, “it is unreasonable that I am first obliged to give strict promises of confidentiality by the State in order to conduct medical research, then . . . I am ordered by the State to break hundreds of promises of confidentiality . . . then I am indicted by the State and, ultimately, am sentenced as a criminal by the State because I had not broken those promises of confidentiality that I had the State’s instruction to give.

The whole affair has been a real shocker and the article is well worth reading. There is very little peace and tranquility in the ivory tower of academia a fact that some researchers find out at their peril. Most of the stories are of course not as high profile and the number of people who simply quit their academic carreers along the way would make an interesting research topic in of itself.

Activist Wifi

Stealing wifi is an old subject but it remains an interesting one. That some people have been prosecuted for stealing wifi in different parts of the world is also old news.* Still most of us have no problem checking for open networks when we need to access. I have also known users to be on their neighbours wifi without knowing or meaning to – they just don’t understand the difference. But this may be a minorty.

The availablity of open networks is either intentional, unintentional or even accidental. Accidental occurs when people don’t know about wifi and unintentional happens when people don’t know what they are doing. Then there is the group who intentionally shares their wifi.**

Some would prefer to share because sharing is good. Bruce Schneier has written about the added good of openness.

Similarly, I appreciate an open network when I am otherwise without bandwidth. If someone were using my network to the point that it affected my own traffic or if some neighbor kid was dinking around, I might want to do something about it; but as long as we’re all polite, why should this concern me? Pay it forward, I say.

The attitudes about freeloading and sharing vary. Some are scared of intrusion, some support the openness and others could not care less. Unfortunately the latter group is growing. I say unfortunately since the default settings on more wireless routers, especially those provided by ISPs, are closed.

This is the equivalent of the house advantage in roulette. Slowly and surely their will be no openness left other than those few activists who strive to ensure open networks. This means that the struggle for openness will go from the commonplace to the realm of the activists.

* Arstechnica reports that an Illinois man was arrested and fined $250 in 2006 & in Michigan man who parked his car in front of a café and snarfed its free WiFi was charged this past May [2007] with “Fraudulent access to computers, computer systems, and computer networks.” In a similar case from Singapore (Engadget) a 17-year old recieved 18 months of probation under the Computer Misuse Act for stealing his neighbours wifi. In the UK one man was been arrested and two people have been cautioned for WiFi theft or “dishonestly obtaining electronic communications services with intent to avoid payment.”

** Sharing wifi will in most cases violate the contract terms for most internet service providers.

Plagiarism Saga

Following the embarrassing case of plagiarism at my university (Göteborg) has turned into a long process (here, here, here and here).

The brief outline of the case is that a researcher acting as a supervisor for a mastes thesis used some of the students work in a conference paper without referencing the work of the students. Apparently the students were mentioned in the oral presentation of the paper. Not that this matters.

May 2005: The conference when the paper was presented.

November 2005: The plagiarism is addressed by the Faculty, unsure what they actually did probably just decided to send the errand on to the ethics committee.

May 2006: A split ethics committee is not in agreement and send the case on to the National Science Council (Vetenskapsrådet)

March 2007: National Science Council reaches the conclusion that the researcher had behaved in an unethical manner by plagiarising student essays.

June 2007: The expert group at the Science council reach the same conclusion.

September 2007: The Human Resources Committee at Göteborg University is the body with the power to punish the researcher for her actions is unable to act since the university failed to notify the researcher, in writing, that disciplinary actions could be taken. This notification must take place within two years of the waking of the errand.  This means that since nobody at the university bothered to notify the researcher in writing during the past two year no disciplinary actions can be taken.

This situation has been handled incredibly badly….

Microsoft Spyware Patent

Rejås writes that Microsoft has applied for a patent for a Spyware application. Spyware is a program, system or infrastructure that monitors the activities of computer users. Most Spyware is used to build up profiles in order to create efficient direct marketing. Similar systems have been patented earlier by Claria (formerly Gator).

For more information about the ills of Spyware you can read Spyware – the ethics of covert software, an article I wrote a few years ago. There is lots of good stuff written about Spyware so this is more a place to start.

Ethics for Scientists

The British government’s chief scientific advisor Professor Sir David King has set out a universal ethical code for scientists.

1) Act with skill and care, keep skills up to date
2) Prevent corrupt practice and declare conflicts of interest
3) Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists
4) Ensure that research is justified and lawful
5) Minimise impacts on people, animals and the environment
6) Discuss issues science raises for society
7) Do not mislead; present evidence honestly

Professor King says: “We believe if every scientist followed the code, we would improve the quality of science and remove many of the concerns society has about research.”
The seven points are a bit obvious but then again maybe that’s the point?

(via Purse Lips Square Jaw)