CSCI 494: Social and Ethical Issues

Social and Ethical Issues
Spring 2017
Thomas VanDrunen

Meeting time: Tu 8:30-10:25am.
Meeting place: Meyer Science 131

Office hours: MTuWF (not Th) 3:30-4:30 pm; Th 9:30-10:30 am and 1:00-3:00 pm.
Contact: 163 Science; 752-5692;


Coming soon:
Details and due dates for the term paper
Other interesting papers and articles

Final exam: Tues, May 2, 8:00am

Note that the readings listed are assigned for that date to be discussed in class. Send me a summary/response no later than 8:00pm the night before. Full bibliographic information for these readings can be found in the course packet or in this bibliography. Page numbers below refer to the pagination of the readings in the course packet, not in their original publication.

(Jump to current assignment)

Jan 10. Computer science and personality, part 1.

Levy, Hackers, chapter 1: "The Tech Model Railroad Club", pg 4-15.

Levy's book is a sketch of some of the personalities in the early days of the hacker community. In this first chapter, Levy traces the origins of hacker culture to a student model railroad club at MIT. We're using this to begin a discussion about the personality types of people who have traditionally been drawn to computer science. This reading is also the first in a recurring theme this semester about the culture of the hacker community.

Jan 17. Computer science and personality, part 2.

Weinberg, The Psychology of Computer Programming, chapter 8: "Personality Factors," pg 16-26.

Pausch, The Last Lecture, chapters 4-6, "The Parent Lottery", etc, pg 27-34.

Weinberg's book is a classic about, well, the psychology both of the activity of computer programming and of those who practice it. I think chapter 8 gets at the core of the book; it at least is what's most memorable for me. Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University before his death from pancreatic cancer. An autobiographical "last lecture" he gave in 2007 has gotten more than 18 million views on YouTube and was adapted into book form. By picking these three chapters I hope to give you a representative sample of the book's contents. Together these readings will allow us to continue our discussion on computer science personalities.

Jan 24. Computer science education.

Dijkstra, "On the cruelty of really teaching computing science", pg 35-64.

Harvey and Wright, preface to Simply Scheme, pg 65-72.

Gabriel, "Master of fine arts in software," pg 73-75.

I think you know that Dijkstra has influenced my thinking about computer science and how I teach it. Now you can hear about it from his own words (and in his own handwriting). Dijkstra's ideas are more respected than followed---even by me. The preface to the textbook Simply Scheme is a concise example of an explicitly contrarian view (right out of "hacker culture"). We'll be hearing more from Dijkstra later this semester. Gabriel's proposal for a Master of Fine Arts in Software is part of a different conversation, but I added it here because it is also about computer science education. We'll be hearing more from Gabriel, too.

Jan 31. Computer science and women.

Margolis, Unlocking the Clubhouse, chapters 1, "The Magnetic Attraction", and 4, "Geek Mythology", pg 76-93.

Kihlstrom, "Men are from the server side, women are from the client side," pg 94-105.

Why are there so few women in computer science? Other STEM fields---see mathematics and biology in particular here at Wheaton---have made great gains in attracting female students. What's wrong with us? This podcast episode suggests it wasn't always like that and points to specific things that may have discouraged women from joining the field. It refers to Unlocking the Clubhouse, which is one of the most well-known works that addresses this question. Kim Kihlstrom, who wrote the other piece we're reading, was a CSCI professor at Westmont College and was a leader among CSCI faculty at Christian colleges. (She passed away in 2008.)

Feb 7. No class. Faculty development day.

Feb 14. Computer science and power.

Abelson and Sussman, introduction to Structure and Interpretation of Computer Program, pg 106-107.

Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason, chapters 1, "On Tools", and 4, "Science and the compulsive programmer", pg 108-130.

SICP is one of the most respected introductory programming texts (again, more respected than used). Reading this introduction continues threads from CSCI ed and hacker culture (Sussman is one of the personalities in Levy's book). What sticks with me is the brazenness of their comparison of programming with sorcery. Weizenbaum, who observed the early days of hacker culture firsthand, was one of the first people to articulate concern about what the power of computer programming does to people.

Feb 21. The ethics of hacker culture.

Levy, Hackers chapter 2, "The Hacker Ethic", pg 131-136.

Various essays by the Free Software Foundation and/or Richard Stallman, pg 137-147.

Crisman, "Open Source Software and Christian Thought", pg 148-158.

As one of the first observers of hacker culture, Levy also noticed that this culture has a distinct ethical philosophy. The most important contemporary expression of this ethic is in the open-source/free software movement, and it spills over into the entire debate about intellectual property. Karl-Dieter Crisman, a math professor at Gordon College (a Christian college in Massachusetts), gives a Christian assessment.

Feb 28. The production of software, part 1.

Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, chapters 1, "A brief history of hackerdom", and 2, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar", pg 159-188.

More from hacker culture. Eric Raymond's original essay and the book that sprouted from it are a classic. For our present purposes, I am most interested in what it says about how software should be produced. The readings on software development are fairly long, so I've split them into two weeks.

Mar 7. No class. Spring break.

Mar 14. The production of software, part 2.

Gabriel, "Mob Software," pg 189-204.

VanDrunen, "A Christian Analysis of 'Mob Software'", pg 205-226.

Gabriel's email to me in response to "A Christian Analysis", pg 227.

I heard Gabriel's essay in person when he gave it as a keynote address at OOPSLA 2000. It prompted a lot of thinking on my part, and eventually it let to my Faith and Learning Paper, part of the tenure process here at Wheaton. Sorry it's so long. You'll be able to see how the research I did for that paper lead me to many of the things we're reading about in this course.

Mar 21. Design.

Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, chapter 1, "The psychopathology of everyday things, pg 228-244.

Gabriel, "Worse is better," pg 245-248.

Brooks, The Design of Design, chapter 4, "Requirements, Sin, and Contracts", pg 249-254.

Huttenlock, "Establishing a Framework for Evaluating Technology", pg 255-267.

This topic follows closely on the production of software. Norman's book on design, especially bad design, is a classic that gets quoted a lot in CSCI circles, especially in the context of user interfaces. The Gabriel piece is the "famous part" of a longer talk he gave, and it's what he's most known for. You've all read Brooks's The Mythical Man-Month; this chapter is from a more recent book on software (and other) design. Brooks is a Christian, and it's interesting to see how his faith shapes his thoughts here. Finally, Terry Huttenlock works in Buswell Library; her Faith and Learning Paper also gives a Christian perspective on technological design.

Mar 28. Skepticism of technology.

Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil, chapter 2, "An amalgam of popular fictions...", pg 268-281.

Carr, The Shallows, chapter 1, "HAL and me", pg 282-288.

Postman, Technopoly, chapter 1, "The judgment of Thamus," pg 289-298.

I'm a bit of a Luddite at heart. We've got to spend some time looking at those who refuse to get on the bandwagon of computers, the internet, digital publishing, technology, whatever. Two of these are from the nineties, so we have the opportunity to see how well they've endured the test of time.

April 4. Defining the field of computer science, part 1.

Dijkstra, "The Humble Programmer," pg 299-314.

Dijkstra, "My Hopes of Computing Science," pg 315-321.

Our excuse for reading these Dijkstra classics is the question, What is the field of computer science?

April 11. Defining the field of computer science, part 2.

Denning, various papers from CACM, pg 322-341.

Over the course of about ten years, Peter Denning (a leader in computer science for many decades) talked about how to understand computer science as a field.

April 18. Computer science and faith.

Knuth, Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks about, chapter 6, "God and computer science," pg 342-358.

Schurrman, Shaping a Digital World,, chapter 1, pg 359-367.

I hope we have been talking about computer science and faith this entire semester (and this entire major). But here are two pieces that explore the intersections explicitly. One of them is by a giant in the field who is a believer but not an Evangelical (I'm quite sure he wouldn't be able to sign Wheaton's Statement of Faith) to a secular audience. The other is by a computer science professor from a Christian college, mainly written to Evangelicals.

April 25. Computer science connections.

Hofstadler, Godel, Escher, Bach, chapter 1, "A musico-logical offering," pg 368-410.

We have to read something from GEB.

Thomas VanDrunen
Last modified: Tue Feb 14 12:04:28 CST 2017