COMP_SCI 396: Computing, Ethics, and Society

Quarter Offered

Fall : 1-2:20 TuTh ; Van Wart & Vakil
Winter : 2-3:20 TuTh ; Van Wart


Instructor permission


Computing technologies shape our personal, social, and political lives in increasingly complex and consequential ways – providing tremendous benefits (e.g. convenient access to information, connecting to one another across time and space) and harms (e.g. biased decision-making, mass surveillance, disinformation campaigns, and exclusion from critical material opportunities) that are important to examine and understand. 

At the same time, these technologies are born and shaped by the societies in which they are developed. Thus, grappling with the ethics of technologies (i.e considering the harms and benefits, how and why they were created in the first place, and how and to what ends they are used) is important not only for ultimately creating more moral technologies but a more moral society. Thus, our approach to the ethics of computing technologies requires a multifaceted assessment of their harm and benefit to our individual, cultural, and political lives, and simultaneously a critical examination of the values, ideologies, and contexts through which computing technologies emerge. 

To accomplish this, we will engage in critical reading and synthesizing across a range of topics drawn from computer science and HCI, education and learning sciences, as well as ethics and philosophy. We will also engage in hands-on activities to help us consider how technical decisions (e.g. sampling, data collection practices, categorization and classification, prediction, system design, etc.) involve human judgements that can have both intended and unintended consequences. Specifically, students will:

  • Examine the design choices and tradeoffs that various computing infrastructures make (and have made) in relation to important societal values (e.g. individual autonomy, free speech, equity, privacy, justice, security, access to opportunity, etc.).
  • Consider some of the intended and unintended consequences of computing applications within our communities, institutions, and social systems (e.g. schooling, employment, policing, transportation, business, etc.). This involves paying attention to who wins and who loses, as well as how these technologies might amplify existing marginalities and privileges.
  • Develop a variety of analytic lenses for examining computing technologies in terms of their social, ethical, and political consequences.

The course is open to all students. For CS majors and minors, the course aims to help students to consider and grapple with ethical dimensions of their work, in order to inform a more critical technical practice. For students pursuing non-computing disciplines, the course aims to provide a solid foundation for thinking about the possibilities, risks, and impacts of computer-mediated infrastructures on society.

The course format will consist of:

  1. Readings and in-class discussions of current and enduring socio-technical dilemmas, and how they relate to applications of AI, Big Data, and the Internet.
  2. Hands-on activities to help students to consider the potential impacts of different kinds of technical decisions (e.g. sampling, data collection practices, categorization and classification strategies, prediction, system design, etc.).
  3. Reflective writing assignments that will ask you to analyze the social and ethical dimensions of contemporary technology debates.

To apply, please fill out the Winter 2021 Application: 

There will be no pre-registration for this course, but anyone who fills out this form will be kept up to date, via email, of where they are on the waiting list. For those accepted into the course, you will be given a permission number the week before classes begin.


COURSE INSTRUCTOR : Prof. Sarah Van Wart & Prof. Sepehr Vakil (Fall), Prof. Sarah Van Wart (Winter)