A Discipline in its Infancy

As Computer Use Grows, So Do Moral Issues
By Terrell Ward Bynum

This article appeared in the Dallas Morning News, on Tuesday, January 12, 1982.

A famous rock star has just died and millions of fans are grieving. The computer of a major novelty distributor is immediately put into action, for there is not a moment to lose if the grief is to be fully exploited. From data banks of ticket agencies, record distributors and other firms, the computer compiles names, addresses, purchasing histories and financial backgrounds of people who bought records and attended concerts of the fallen star. Within 48 hours of the tragedy, the novelty company begins computer-dialing phone numbers of thousands of grieving fans. Whenever someone answers, the computer plays excerpts of the dead star’s most emotional records along with a sales pitch for souvenir T-shirts and posters. Instantly, orders are taken and confirmation letters are printed. Within a week, more than a million fans have been reached, and factories have been notified of the number of items to produce. Is this imagined application of computers a smart, efficient business venture? Is it unfair exploitation of people caught in a weak moment? Is the gathering of information on people and the phoning of their homes an unethical invasion of their privacy or a new and commendable business strategy? Such questions and many harder ones are being raised and debated in “computer ethics,” a new field of growing concern to business and industry as well as to all of society.
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Norbert Wiener’s Foundation of Computer Ethics

By Terrell Ward Bynum

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, visionary mathematician/philosopher Norbert Wiener founded computer ethics as a field of academic research. In his groundbreaking book, The Human Use of Human Beings (1950, 1954), Wiener developed a powerful method for identifying and analyzing the enormous impacts of information and communication technology (ICT) upon human values like life, health, happiness, security, knowledge and creativity. Even today, in this era of “global information ethics” and the Internet, concepts and procedures that Wiener developed in the 1950s can be used to identify, analyze and resolve social and ethical problems associated with ICT of all kinds. Wiener based his foundation for computer ethics upon a “cybernetic” view of human nature that leads readily to an ethically suggestive account of the purpose of a human life. From this, he derived “principles of justice” upon which every society should be based, and then he followed a practical strategy for identifying and resolving computer ethics issues wherever they might arise. Continue reading

A Very Short History of Computer Ethics

By Terrell Ward Bynum

[This article was published in the Summer 2000 issue of the American Philosophical Association’s Newsletter on Philosophy and Computing]

The Foundation of Computer Ethics

Computer ethics as a field of study was founded by MIT professor Norbert Wiener during World War Two (early 1940s) while helping to develop an antiaircraft cannon capable of shooting down fast warplanes. One part of the cannon had to “perceive” and track an airplane, then calculate its likely trajectory and “talk” to another part of the cannon to fire the shells. The engineering challenge of this project caused Wiener and some colleagues to create a new branch of science, which Wiener called “cybernetics” – the science of information feedback systems. The concepts of cybernetics, when combined with the digital computers being created at that time, led Wiener to draw some remarkably insightful ethical conclusions. He perceptively foresaw revolutionary social and ethical consequences. In 1948, for example, in his book Cybernetics: or control and communication in the animal and the machine, he said the following: Continue reading