Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 1. Introduction


What is so interesting about considering the impact and significance of computers and information technology and information networks?

Therac-25  Overdose of Radiation Trusting Computers?  Programming? Software Designers?  


Leveson, Nancy, and Clark S. Turner. July 1993. "An Investigation of the Therac-25 Accidents", IEEE Computer, Vol. 25, No. 7, pp. 18-41.

Joyce, E. J. Oct. 1986. "Malfunction 54: Unraveling Deadly Medical Mystery of Computerized Accelerator Gone Awry", American Medical News, pp. 1,13-17.

The initial work of analyzing the Therac-25 incidents was the responsibility of a small Canadian company named DLSF. A brief description of their involvement is available.  

What do you think the most significant issues are related to this case?  What issues might be related to ethics or morality?


Should computers and their programs be given decision making tasks now exercised by humans?



The following are remarks, reflections and responses to issues and questions related to this matters in this chapter.  Each offering is proceeded by the authors name and institutional affiliation. 


What things do humans consider of great and fundamental importance (Values) that appear to have any relation to the technological advances and applications involving computers and information networks and the internet? 

Chris Murphy, CUNY, SPS, 2007

This question, as I think about it more, is quite complex.  My first thought is that we as humans value time most.  We keep track of it feverishly and are told to spend it wisely.  In light of our understanding of limited time, with regards to our individual life, we have learned to become productive.  Productivity is, in essence, our act to transcend time; to produce something that is timeless.  I will say, without straying from topic too much, that this productive mindset has led way to a successful capitalistic market that cherishes production and caters to the aggregation of time.  Technology, in the form of tools or hunting weapons, aided in early mans acquiring food, though not at the level of today, more readily than without.  Farming afforded more leisure time, and the eventual family autarky offered time for the Greeks to develop the solely political activity.  In the general sense their understanding was that someone who had to spend their time working to secure the necessities of life was a slave to their labor (however they did have slaves treated as personal property) The head of the household was the true citizen who, having the necessities provide for them by their estate, could take part in the true act of humanity, politics.  In this act their time was spent producing laws of justice that would, at least in their minds, live on forever. 

I once read, though I'm not sure where, about the invention of the vacuum cleaner and the adoption of its use in industrial American homes.  The machine that was supposed to revolutionize cleaning floors for women, giving them so much more time to do other things, was actually causing the same amount of work due to the pollution generated by creating additional electricity to run the vacuum.  I think that relative to today the push for technology as a time saver has given way to productivity.  TIVO just allows for us to watch more TV not spend less time in front of it.  The blackberry just allows for us to be more accessible not get emails done on the move.  I am writing this paper at 11pm on Sunday after working most of the day, not on my job, but on this and other courses. 

As productivity goes our lives are just that and technology aids in its pursuit.  I believe Hannah Arendt was right when she speaks of us as a generation of laborers in her work The Human Condition.  Even our social activities are actively productive, highlighted by MySpace bloggers with continually updated pages and regular visitors.  My final thought is that technology is made up of tools that suit our wants, whether
our needs coincide is an entirely different discussion.

Marie Lafferty, CUNY, SPS, 2007

When we start talking about human values, we have to start with the simple basics because to talk about human values would necessarily include those things all humans consider of great and fundamental importance.  Some human values are directly related to technological advances, and some only peripherally, but in a modern society all bear some relationship to computers and information networks and the internet. 

Values are based on need, are developed individually or taught by has been perceived as the needs of the greater society. The most basic human value is survival, quickly followed by those things that provide for that survival—enough to eat, water, safety, communication and relationship with our fellow man.   All of these are fundamentally important and universal.  Computers have effect on all of them, even isolated communities and whether we are aware of the effects or not.   

Communication is most obviously and directly related to the internet. The ability to express oneself is a large component of the internet and is responsible for its quick success and universality.   Communication takes place with trust, another value. On the internet, that may seem unnecessary at times, but without some level of trust, interaction is stifled. Doing business on the internet, establishing contacts, all require a level of trust established.  No real communication takes place without respect, and most people, whether they offer respect or not, demand it for themselves.  To some degree or another, our expectations are often influenced by the culture we’re part of, but communication on the internet has shown that self- expression, fairness or justice, and freedom are all human values judged to be important.  These I see as the primary values.  There are others, less universal, and mostly culture-based, such as importance of the individual, or the greater good of society, or the unique sense of community, but the very basic values involving the computer and information technologies are, or should be, the universal ones.

Richard Vida, CUNY, SPS, 2007

The “Information Age,” is continuing to lure us into its lair with a myriad of convenient high-tech gadgets: laptops, Ipods, Mp3’s, desktops, cell phones, and the list continues to grow by the second.  The new laptop, on which I am writing this essay, is practically obsolete 30 days after purchase.  We can be anywhere in the world and connect with another person, organization or make a purchase from any store in the world via an infinite vanguard called the Internet.  

The Internet with its hypertext creating the World Wide Web, I believe may rival the wheel as one of the greatest inventions of all time. “The World Wide Web was born when Tim Berners-Lee, a researcher at CERN, the high-energy physics laboratory in Geneva, developed Hypertext Markup Language. HTML, as it is commonly known, allowed the Internet to expand into the World Wide Web, using specifications he developed such as URL (Uniform Resource Locator) and HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). A browser, such as Netscape or Microsoft Internet Explorer, follows links and sends a query to a server, allowing a user to view a site.”   

This cyberspace phenomenon all began with the designers of the ARPANET.  An invention allowing computers to communicate with each other; “viewed as a comprehensive resource-sharing network.  Initially developed for communication between university researchers (ARPANET) and for the military (MILNET) it was this new way of computer dialog that birthed the TCP/IP connection that is still used today and by 1995 it was renamed the Internet.”   

Of course, there are tremendous debates both for and against this new technology, yet as annoyed as I become sitting on a bus or a train forced to listen to another’s personal conversation, I just have to stop and marvel at this exciting age in which I am living.  The globe is becoming one, whether we like it or not.  Yet throughout all of our complaining about how fast life is becoming and how we can’t seem to escape the bombardment of information being catapulted at us every minute, nobody I know wants to go back to life without cable-television, cell phones, text messages and laptops.    

BBC News are reporting a recent Gartner Dataquest statement that over one billion PCs have been sold worldwide. What's even more impressive is that this figure is set to double by as early as 2008. (

Of course the Internet would not have had a chance to dominate pop-culture if it weren’t for the Personal Computer (PC).  The PC, another life altering technological device has changed our lives and how we communicate, study, shop, create documents and simply entertain ourselves.  One is considered prehistoric without a computer.   

As wonderfully appreciated as these two awesome creations have made our lives, they do come with negative aspects too.   Certainly economically businesses benefit from this quick way to communicate, and it’s great to take care of my bill paying, professional correspondence and banking while sitting in my boxer shorts with a cup of coffee -- but who is the gatekeeper of this information sharing frenzy?    

Many of us mindlessly enter personal information for both business and pleasure.  We hit the send button and rarely think anybody will see it other than our intended receiver.  Think again, as we’ve seen reported over and over “Big Brother” may be watching.  Cyber-theft is a new crime, cyber addiction a new disease and copyright infringement continues to stymie artists, writers and lawyers, yet we can’t stop logging on.     

It seems that no matter what technology has to offer us and how great the possibility for the good, cyberspace will always mirror society.  There will always be thieves, nosy neighbors, addicts and scam artists but the situation and the means in which they perform have changed.  Human nature remains the same.  There’s the good and the bad in everything, and as wonderful as this new “cyber-world” may be and is yet to become, I feel the biggest change to society at large (and one we are not very familiar with) is that we must now become our own gatekeepers.  We now have a much larger audience and whether we believe it or not, somebody’s always reading, watching and listening.  


Jennifer Lowe, CUNY, SPS, 2007

A value is a belief, a mission, or a philosophy that is meaningful. Whether we are consciously aware of them or not, every individual has a core set of personal values. Values can range from the commonplace, such as the belief in hard work and punctuality, to the more psychological, such as self-reliance, concern for others, and harmony of purpose. 

As no two people are alike I believe that no two people have the same values. But as far as the internet and personal values I believe that most people would agree with me on below. 


As Americans we have certain unalienable rights, the First Amendment being the first.  I believe that we should have the freedom to state our views on line the same as we do in speech and in written communications.  As in all other forms of communication there should be some form of government regulations as the content on-line can be questionable at times.   


We should all feel safe and secure whether we are working, shopping, e-mailing, etc.  while online.  Firewalls and safe guards are in place but there still are loopholes that hackers are able to get through. I question how secure my personal information is on-line.  Who has access to what I do online and why? At what point do we say enough?  We currently have a system for the phone where you can be put on a “Do not call registry”.  Once you are added to the registry it is supposed to prevent telemarketers from calling.  How great would it be if we could get something similar set up on the internet to prevent spam and the accessing of personal information? 

Children should be able to use the internet safe from predators.  Sites like My Space have come under scrutiny because of their content.

I feel that it also these sites moral responsibility to check what’s posted periodically and remove anything that is deemed questionable for children.  I don’t have children but the though of my child being stalked by a predator disturbs and disgusts me. 


At a young age I was taught the golden rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” I like to think that at “most” times I abide by these rules.  I think the same should apply when conducting yourself on-line. The news if full of stories about on-line bullying and sites created with the sole purpose to slander people. I may be breeching the First Amendment but I feel that these sites should not be condoned.   

These people have proven to have no respect for themselves or others and should not be allowed online. 

Again the population as a whole has many diverse backgrounds that come with different values. It is our responsibility to conduct ourselves responsibly in our day to day lives.

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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents