Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Winter 1998

Book Reviews

Computer and Information Ethics

Bill T. Johnson
Science Librarian
Texas Tech University Library

Computer and Information Ethics. John Weckert and Douglas Adeney. Series: Contributions to the Study of Computer Science, #4, G.E. Gorman (Advisory Editor). Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1997. 175 p. hardback $59.95 (ISBN 0-313-29362-7).
Anticipating doubts as to whether the topic of "computer and information ethics" is legitimate, the authors defend their book in its first few pages. While they claim the subject is valid, they don't substantiate their case, other than to suggest that the topic of computer ethics has emerged much like environmental ethics, largely due to the relative importance assigned these issues by society. Their approach to the subject is "unashamedly philosophical" throughout the book in contrast to the sociological or psychological perspectives which they mention as alternatives.

In order to foster a common basis of understanding between reader and writers, the initial chapter strives to explain the meaning of ethics. This is done by examining several theories of ethics such as objectivism and relativism. These theories are placed in the context of three levels of critical thinking, meta-ethics, general normative stances, and specific issues. Based on this broad foundation, subsequent chapters deal with the ethics of one's profession, the freedom of information, censorship, intellectual property, privacy, and responsibility. The final section discusses what computers should not do in light of cultural considerations as they impact the quality of our life and work. A future look at virtual reality is offered to help prepare us for the virtual society of tomorrow. They, like many authors writing on this topic, tell us that the next generation of computers will be radically different than the ones we have been using. Developments with artificial intelligence lead them to conclude that "robot rights" will become a moral issue.

A brief glossary is provided along with an extensive bibliography and a detailed index. Each chapter offers a summary, a list of references, and a brief list of suggested items for further reading. The authors do an outstanding job of presenting a logical structure to their writing that will help the reader understand what has been covered and what may be anticipated. Those of us with a science orientation may struggle with the philosophical approach, but problems are minimized due to the author's efforts to effectively communicate and logically organize the material; nevertheless some concepts remain cloudy.

Excessive wordiness is encountered at times and one may develop a sense that the authors are simply enjoying a conversation between themselves for the sake of agreement in order to press on to the next point. Frequent analogies are used to clarify certain concepts, yet one occasionally wonders if the authors aren't stretching these comparisons beyond reasonable limits. For example, in their discussion of artificial intelligence, they suggest that the relationship between a professional psychotherapist and patient is the same as that between a prostitute and her client. They conclude, therefore, virtual psychotherapy is just as valid as that where a human therapist is employed. It is also not clear if the authors fully understand copyright, confusing an author's ideas with their expression of those ideas. Copyright protects the tangible expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves (section 102(a) of the 1976 Copyright Act).

Despite the concerns expressed above, this book is recommended for serious minded information professionals who are likely to face sensitive ethical or moral issues in their work. These issues may be broad, such as with censorship or privacy. They may also be much more specific, such as with virtual prostitution or robotic rights. Regardless, they are worth investigating. If you are interested in what is being said about the information society of tomorrow, this book may offer some surprises. The authors acknowledge that agreement on many of these issues is unlikely. The discussions fostered by this book will be worthwhile as they will force us to consider difficult topics and assess how we stand on these important issues.

John Weckert is Senior Lecturer at Charles Sturt University in Australia. His research and teaching activities include artificial intelligence, knowledge-based systems, and computer ethics. Douglas Adeney is a Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. His primary teaching and research interests involve moral and political philosophy, metaphysics, and logic.


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