The Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law

Manuscripts and Articles

Volume 3, July 2003

Ethical and Social Issues in Engineering and Computing –
The Spring Regional Meeting of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology

Brian M. O'Connell, J.D.*


* Associate Professor of Ethics, Law & Computing, Departments of Computer Science & Philosophy, Central Connecticut State University; Vice President, IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology


The IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT) is comprised of an international membership of over 2000 practitioners and academics. In addition to those working within mainstream engineering fields, the Society includes among its members, a substantial number of individuals primarily engaged in such diverse disciplines as communication, philosophy, law and public policy studies. This varied composition offers an excellent foundation for wide-ranging dialogue, informed by multiple perspectives and expertise.

The Society sponsors the annual International Symposium on Technology and Society and publishes Technology & Society Magazine. On April 4, 2003, it's forums were further expanded with the commencement of a regional meeting program. The inaugural event was organized by Professor Michael Loui of theCollege of Engineering at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and hosted by the Coordinated Science Laboratory. A dynamic group of invited speakers and their chosen topics produced an afternoon of synergistic discussion and reflection.

Following welcoming remarks from Dean David E. Daniels of the College of Engineering and Ravi K. Iyer, Director of the Coordinated Science Laboratory, the presentations began with Dr. Steve Jones, Professor and Head of the Communication Department, University of Illinois at Chicago and President of the Association of Internet Researchers. His remarks focused upon emerging ethical challenges relating to virtual reality (VR). After presenting a brief history of VR within educational contexts, Dr. Jones outlined his work on a current project to digitally represent the Harlem Renaissance. "Virtual Harlem" is a prototype for the narrative conveyance of history and employs its graphical and audio effects to immerse its visitors in decades of cultural heritage. In detailing the processes employed to achieve these highly-technical goals, he outlined the emergence of decidedly humanistic concerns. These were characterized as "the ethics of virtual history". They included the confronting of such value-laden choices as how to preserve authenticity while engaging an audience, how to balance historical realism against logistical necessity and how to create choice and completeness within programmed, finite environments.

The insights which Dr. Jones related as being the consequences of these explorations centered upon the implementation of an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving. We are, he suggested, too often trapped within the rhetorical construction of the "lone scholar", becoming overly-reliant upon our own hermetic knowledge and individual technical skills. The lessons of virtual ethics are demonstrating that this "solo" model is ill-suited to projects in which both technical and humanistic elements are interweaved. An emphasis, he concluded, must be placed upon an increased appreciation for the breadth of virtual endeavors and consequently, on the adoption of interdisciplinary approaches, uniting humanistic and technical viewpoints to achieve ethically desirable outcomes.

The effects of the virtual upon ethical and social dynamics continued as a theme in the presentation of Dr. Wendy Robinson, Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Cincinnati. Her remarks focused upon the penetration of the physical world into the formerly disembodied and anonymous realm of "cyberspace". With the advent of such technologies as global positioning, advanced digital communication and "24/7" ubiquitous access, the online dynamic has increasingly become "physicalized". The result is a disruption of assumed boundaries between online and physical environments. As this dichotomy disintegrates, so too will the stability of our prior notions concerning autonomy, privacy, property, identity and freedom within electronic spaces. According to Dr. Robinson, if the well-known assumption that on the "Net", one could be a dog without detection was ever true, it shall be no more. These observations engendered a spirited dialogue with the audience, which included such issues as the future role of social classification within networks, the equitable ramifications posed by the creation of new electronic needs and the likely effects of these changes upon standards of online civility. Discussion also emerged regarding the possible transformations which new communication technologies will produce in mainstream attitudes about such fundamental issues as intellectual property and privacy.

The final two presentations focused attention upon professional issues. Dr. Keith Miller, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois atSpringfield, examined the current status of software engineering. Consistent with the observations of prior speakers, his remarks emphasized the unique effects of digital technology upon the formation of an accepted professional definition. He noted that while the malleability of computational dynamics is a positive attribute, it is also a factor in the existence of multiple, sometimes contradictory descriptions of its practitioners' activities. This was illustrated by a comprehensive account of various initiatives undertaken by professional societies such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). These have included attempts to build definitional consensus on a body of fundamental knowledge as well as cooperative work toward the establishment of a shared code of ethics. Descriptions of controversies and impasses encountered within these dialogues highlighted the conflicting array of interests, self-images and traditions which have yet to be reconciled.

Given the history of computing's self-examination process, it is not surprising that the controversies are replicated at the interface between the profession and the public. Dr. Miller described the state of licensing within computer engineering, reporting its operation in Texas, currently the only American jurisdiction requiring this certification. More broadly, he outlined the ethical and theoretical arguments for and against the imposition of legal regulation, citing the aforementioned instability of definitional consensus, the problems raised by an attempted standardization or measurement of competence and the effects of licensing upon public safety. This latter consideration formed the basis for an active discussion concerning the interaction of professionalization and the law, particularly as related to the ability of the judiciary to unilaterally define professional standards through litigation.

Issues of public accountability were further explored by Dr. Sarah K.A. Pfatteicher, Assistant Dean for Engineering Academic Affairs, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her remarks centered upon her analysis of investigations concerning the World Trade Center collapse, particularly, their response to the question of whether it would have been technically possible to forestall or even prevent a total structural failure. Her research included reviews of various reports from both popular and technical sources and revealed sharp differences in investigative approaches. She described how professional evaluations have, at least initially, focused upon design and construction issues, exploring only minimally and uncritically, the quality of decisions made by engineering personnel. In contrast, through an impressive multi-media presentation, Dr. Pfatteicher demonstrated that "popular" analyses of the events, such as those undertaken by the Public Broadcasting System's Nova series, devoted significant consideration to the effects of individuals' judgments and actions. She suggested that the difference in methodologies reflected, in part, long-standing engineering review practices, in which failure teaches lessons through an examination of "what" rather than "who" is accountable. The mode of approach, Dr. Pfatteicher concluded, carries obvious consequences and imports an array of suppositions which merit continued examination. The subsequent discussion included an interdisciplinary exchange of methodologies and problems within evaluative procedures and as well as thoughts about the applicability of wider, historical approaches within the review process.

In keeping with the day's themes of practice, profession and social responsibility, the conference concluded with the presentation of the SSIT Carl Barus Award for Outstanding Service in the Public Interest to David Monts. Former SSIT President, Dr. Stephen Unger related Monts' tireless efforts as an engineer within the Physical Plant Services Department of the University of Louisiana to report and rectify safety risks created by what he perceived to be the result of improper planning and budgetary constraints. Monts' positions inevitably resulted in his termination and a subsequent and protracted civil suit. In contrast with such widely-followed issues as the World Trade Center investigation and policies surrounding licensing, Dr. Unger noted that Mr. Mont's actions were important examples of the everyday ethical challenges which engineers face within modern practice.


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