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Values at Play in Digital Technologies
Cornell Tech - Module II Elective, TECH 5010-030
Tuesday 9:30-10:45AM
Spring 2018
Helen Nissenbaum, Information Science: Cornell Tech

About the course:

Digital technologies have raised important ethical questions. Although often the focus is how ethical issues arise from ways people have used these technologies, there is growing interest in ethical values associated with the design and development of digital systems and devices. The study of values in, or values embodied in technology, has grown in importance as engineers and computer, and data scientists have acknowledged that sound ethical practice is a responsibility alongside technical. This module introduces students to the latter. After providing a background to this way of thinking -- about ethics as a dimension of technology design and development – it introduces students to Values at Play, one particular approach to putting these ideas into practice. Students are encouraged to apply this learning to their own projects.

Intended Learning Outcomes

Students who successfully complete this course will be able to:
Recognize how and to what extent values are implicated in technical artifacts, incidentally or by design.
Engage critically with everyday technical systems.
Recognize instances of design that seem to elevate or obstruct certain values.
Engage actively with values embodied in particular systems or devices so as to recognized alternative designs with differing values implications.
Engage with fundamental concepts in the philosophy and social study of technology.
Critically analyze key social and political issues surrounding contemporary digital information systems and networks, e.g. privacy, intellectual property, freedom of speech.
Demonstrate conceptually or by prototype the values implications of particular design choices in particular systems.
An ability to think rigorously and systematically about values relevant to technical systems and features of systems.

Teaching and Learning Methodologies

Classes will comprise a variety of activity including instructor presentation, group discussion of readings, and individual and small group presentation of mini-projects. Instructor and group discussions will focus on concepts and arguments drawn from weekly reading assignments. After the first few foundation-setting class sessions, a segment of each class will be devoted to planning group projects: assembling students into collaborative pairs or threesomes, selecting topics, honing project goals, etc.


Course readings are essential to the class. It is crucial for all students to complete reading assignments before class meetings. I strongly encourage written notes annotated with page numbers, both to engage in discussion and, later, as sources written work. Students will be asked to post readings' responses to the course website. Readings vary considerably in discipline and level of difficulty; how challenging they are to students will depend on respective background familiarity with concepts, theories, and arguments. How much students benefit and learn from this course will depend heavily on how much efforts you invest in grappling and mastering the readings.

Grading Elements:

Participation (both in-class and posting on Blackboard discussion): 50%
Project (design modifications inspired by values + ~2,000 word write-up): 50%

Students are expected to adhere to the Cornell Code of Academic Integrity.


Mar 6 The idea of Values in Design

Ethics and politics in technology
The Practical Turn
Being a conscientious designer
What values; whose values?

Mar 13

VAP Framework - Discovery

Sources of Values
Operational definition

Values at Play, chapters 1, 4-5
Berlin, Crooked Timber
Friedman and Nissenbaum, Bias
(For your personal edification, read articles by Latour)

Mar 20

VAP Framework - Implementation

Resolving Conflict

Mar 27

VAP Framework - Verification

Behavior, comprehension, attitude

Module III Private tutorials with small groups, 1-2 hours, to discuss individual projects. Tutorials will occur on April 10, 17, and 24th. Schedule TBA.