Book title: Computer and Information Ethics

Greenwood Press; 1997; ISBN: 0-313-29362-7

Andrew Dillon

This item is not the definitive copy. Please use the following citation when referencing this material: Dillon, A. (1998) Review of Weckert and Adeney's Computer and Information Ethics. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 49(9), 861.

The topics of censorship, access, and free-exchange are never far from the surface when people discuss the Internet and its implications for our society but the discussions, while welcome, often appear limited, more opinionated than informed, and based on reaction to an imagined oppressive government clampdown or fear of minors accessing uncensored sexual material. The recent Supreme Court decision on the proposed Communications Decency Act reveals a hugely significant practical and political agenda that demands analysis so it is in this context that the present volume finds itself published and consumed, and one which the authors seem happy to embrace.

This is a slim volume consisting of 11 short chapters that grounds itself at the outset in the philosophical analysis of ethical behavior before jumping straight into the nuts and bolts of freedom of expression, censorship on the net, the processing of images (and particularly the issue of where to draw the line on manipulating an image to alter its fidelity) and the thorny concept of privacy. Chapters covering ethical issues in the realm of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and human work round the book off. But while the chapter titles reflect the content in part, pornography is the issue that surfaces everywhere, from virtual rape in LambdaMOO to prostitution in VR, proving once again that when ethics are discussed in the context of computers, you can be sure sex is never far from our minds.

The book is curious in that it seems to take no position on many of these issues, manifesting instead a wonderfully balanced perspective that seeks to lay bare the ramifications and logical implications of taking one stance over another. This is made clear in the opening chapter where the authors outline the range of ethical positions to be found in the philosophical literature. Objectivism is contrasted with relativism as the primary division before each in turn is dissected to reveal the schools of thought within each of these (objectivism being divided into naturalism, intuitionism, divine command, and rationalism; relativism being dichotomized into subjectivism and cultural relativism). While such a text book approach runs the risk of wearing the reader out, this chapter is actually a joy to read. The authors avoid the stock dismissal of any position but for each one offer both the case for and the case against in a manner that is a model of balance, perhaps aided by the fact that the authors themselves sit on opposite sides of the divides at times.

This balanced outlook drives their analysis of every topic in the book. An issue is raised for discussion to be followed by a thoughtful consideration of the ethical dimensions that are invoked. For example, on the issue of artificial intelligence (AI), the authors take the reader on a potted history of the philosophical arguments for and against considering intelligence a property capable of being abstracted and programmed into a machine. For this they invoke the old example of ELIZA and discuss Weizenbaum’s famous objection to computerized psychotherapists as dehumanizing. In so doing they do not take any side in the debate but more usefully consider all possible sides, suggesting the seemingly endless possible counter-arguments that can exist to any published position. The reader is left to take their own stand here and the style has at times the effect of a great teacher who causes you to side initially with one position before offering a counter argument that leads you to shift, and then only to do that again in reverse later.

While this balance is one of the strengths of the text, it can be frustrating in places as the authors do not always make clear the original bases of some of the counter arguments (should the reader seek further material on any perspective) and the text occasionally reads like an endlessly extended list of logical points for and against any position. While such a style serves an obvious pedagogical function, there are times when the reader aches for resolution. The authors might rightly feel that it is not their job to provide it, but resolution, at least partial, could have been provided by pointing to the current position in the literature. After all, ELIZA is an old example, and the use of expert systems in medical situations has moved along somewhat from Weizenbaum’s secretary telling her problems to ELIZA. In their defense, the authors do manage to relate the AI discussion to the use of expert systems in libraries in a manner that shows how linked are the concerns of philosophers with those of everyday professionals and it is to their credit that even the most abstract ethical issue is always related back to everyday concerns of information professionals.

The treatment of issues however is not exhaustive, and for a book titled as this one, it is not unreasonable for a reader interested in human-computer interaction to expect treatment of the ethical concerns of system design e.g., the role of ethics in designing technology for others to use in their work. Even in user-centered design, effectiveness and efficiency of user performance with interfaces is frequently emphasized at the expense of user satisfaction and the very meaning of human usability can be distorted to reflect task completion rate at the expense of other human factors. Ethics are important here in determining how we define and evaluate usability , and in how we conceptualize acceptability. If software designed to be maximally efficient places a user under stress, then surely something is wrong here, but where do we start to unwrangle the responsibilities of the various stakeholders in this scenario? The authors perhaps missed a great opportunity to explore an central issue but they may justifiably counter that they explore many others. Certainly there is wide coverage, and it is perhaps too wide in places since the book ends up on the debate surrounding artificial life and robot rights that perhaps veers too far from many readers’ major concerns in information ethics, trading depth for breadth in a manner that let this reviewer sometimes dissatisfied.

However, this is a short introductory text, not a definitive work. While it is intended as a reader for a university level class (probably senior undergraduate or graduate level), it will serve this purpose best where it is supplemented with further readings in an environment designed for discussions. Pointers to this literature are provided throughout (as are frequent biblical quotations), so the interested reader will find this a very useful launch-pad to further explorations of ethics. The style is informative and practical, and the authors make clear their views on what is important (e.g., ensuring freedom of speech) and what is not (e.g., is librarianship or computer science a profession?), setting forth an agenda for inquiry and further study that avoids pretentiousness and is frequently humorous. As such this book serves its intended purpose admirably and is a welcome addition to the literature.