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Week Three - Reference Material

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This week proved to be more difficult than I expected to pull together. My problem was that I was too close to the topics chosen. I have been involved with online communities for over 20 years. I've been a participant, and I've been an instigator. And on the ethics front, I spent time working on ethics for professionals in computing.

On both topics, one of the key concerns is not just with today's reality, but with reasonable projections for the digital reality that's coming. The time is right for looking to the future. The Internet turned 25 in March of this year. PEW Research is an independent think tank that often examines issues at the intersection of society and technology. It recently (last week) published Digital Life in 2025. This provides a thoughtful look at what is likely to be coming. As a partial counter-pose is the Zdnet tech website's 8 characteristics of the coming Internet Tsunami. These two sources provide a useful context.

The Internet is all about communications and connections. Our very sense of ourselves is based on early social context and early social interactions. The Encyclopedia of Sociology provides a useful overview of current thinking about the source of our sense of self. Given the increasingly pervasive presence of Internet connections, it's hardly surprising that our self-identity is tied up in our online presence. We and our children and our children's children are being shaped by our online presence – they more than us.

Turning from sense of self and community, the digital revolution is changing the ethical and moral ground on which we stand (or fall). Something similar began to happen in connection with medical ethics starting 40 years ago. Absolute positions turned out to be more and more difficult to defend – there were growing exceptions to all absolutes. Medical ethics rediscovered casuistry. Casuistry is that name given to case-based moral arguments. Start from accepted cases, and develop a reasonable argument to cover a current position. The Abuse of Casuistry by Jonsen and Toulmin provides a good introduction that is increasingly seen as relevant for computing and computer based reasoning.

Privacy has become a big issue. Nothing to Hide (chapter two) and Privacy in the Information Age (chapter one) together provide a reasonable introduction to this difficult subject. We always have something we would prefer not to be known, and certainly not to be revealed in the wrong context. How much can or should an employer or prospective employer be allowed to know? How much should governments be allowed to know? How do we balance the benefit of some public medical records against the individual's desire for privacy? And what about children?

There are no neat and simple answers. There are concerns. Identity theft is real, as is spoofing an identity to extract money from unwitting victims. It's not prudent to just trust that everything will turn out. Be skeptical, and keep records.

Next week: High Tech and the 3rd Age

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May 6 – June 10 (6 sessions) Time: Wednesdays, 10:10 a.m. – 11:55 a.m. Location