COMP_SCI 396: Computing, Ethics, and Society

Quarter Offered

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




Societies are being rapidly shaped by computer-mediated systems. These systems provide tremendous benefits (e.g. online shopping, convenient access to information, connection to friends and family) and risks (e.g. biased decision-making, surveillance, disinformation, and exclusion from critical material opportunities) that are important to examine and understand.

  • This course has been cross-listed with SESP 351-0-21 (Fall 2020).
  • If you are interest to take this class – Sign up Form
In this course, we will explore some of these “everyday” and emerging computing technologies — social media platforms, search engines, internet infrastructure, recommendation systems, ML/AI, and so forth — by looking at their histories, assumptions, and impacts. 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.
  • Study various ethical frameworks, and how these frameworks figure into larger debates about computing, technology, and society.

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. 

Course Format

The course format will consist of:

  1. Readings and case studies of current and enduring socio-technical dilemmas, which will be discussed in class. These will include studying bias in algorithms (e.g., policing, hiring, promoting, search), surveillance technologies, applications of facial recognition technologies, privacy breaches, etc.
  2. Hands-on labs, which will involve studying the underlying technical mechanisms that enable various computing-related phenomena, and how these new possibilities might support or be in tension with various social values. When possible, we aim to use “real-world” datasets to ground these labs in real contexts and dilemmas.
  3. Reflective assignments that analyze the social and ethical dimensions of contemporary technology debates.


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