Ethics: A Forgotten Component of Computer Science Education

Today’s tech industry is given a mysterious glow by popular culture. Coders are seen as prodigies creating a newly imagined future whose mechanisms the rest of us no longer understand. This exciting and secretive position can be extremely alluring for math-inclined college students unsure of their professional path. Yet colleges who produce computer science majors should be doing a better job of forcing them to truly reckon with the ethical consequences and implications of their post-undergraduate work. Being from San Francisco, I am familiar with seeing bus-loads of 24-year-olds who make hundreds of thousands of dollars for engineering my phone and the myriad other technologies I rely on every day. I am also familiar with the corresponding gentrification and job displacement due to automation, unanticipated consequences of tech industry work. Given the state of the modern tech industry, I propose that Swarthmore’s computer science department add a required class to its major regarding the ethics and implications of work in the fields of tech and computer science academia.

Computer science is similar to other S.T.E.M. departments in its straightforward teaching of the skills and technical concepts involved. Yet I would argue that the nature of computer science in today’s world distinguishes it as an academic subject from departments like biology or math. The newness of the tech industry and its rapid rate of change make societal consequences hard to predict, but the national and global effects make it doubly important that they are accounted for as much as humanly possible. Tech workers have already brought with them enormous automation and job displacement, a fake news epidemic, machine bias that perpetuates racism and misogyny, serious threats to data privacy, and automated or more easily used weaponry such as drones. It is imperative that the further development of these technologies not be guided solely by pursuit of quarterly returns and innovation, but rather by apprehension of their consequences. This will become increasingly important as the tech industry continues to take a more invasive role in social infrastructure — just look at China’s new social credit system. That is not to mention the extreme gentrification and job displacement that can occur simply from an influx of tech employees to seemingly any city.

Nonetheless, computer science remains an easy choice of major and career. The cutting-edge future being created in Silicon Valley is compelling for anyone who likes math and has no clear professional leanings. Majors are in such high demand that it is easy to get serious, high-paying jobs straight out of undergrad. The median salaries at Google, Facebook, and Netflix are all near or over the $200,000 mark and the median age of their employees is only late 20s. Swarthmore students may likely be swayed less by factors such as these, but even those incentivized by their love for math and coding or desire to innovate the future are disconnected from the ethical implications of the work that it leads to. The incentives make it extremely easy for students to major in computer science and enter the field without considering their accountability to the American and global public. Other S.T.E.M. departments such as engineering may also permit high-paying jobs soon after undergrad, but the unregulated power granted by their jobs is significantly less. The power of the tech industry makes it important that those entering the industry have carefully considered their reasons and understand the impact of their work.

Considering the current popularity of computer science at Swarthmore, it is essential that the class I am proposing be a mandatory component of the major. There is already a philosophy and computer science first-year seminar titled “Ethics and Technology,” yet the small class size and its self-selecting nature suggest that not enough people, and especially not those who might benefit most, are taking it. Even for Swarthmore students pursuing work outside of Silicon Valley or Ph.D.s, the new class could be an invaluable way to shape the nature of their studies, as well as influence their future interactions within the field.

The specifics of my proposed course are not as important as its creation, though there are several conditions that it should fulfill. The course should be focused on the ethics of computing technologies, largely revolving around reading and discussion. Stanford’s “Ethics, Public Policy, and Technological Change” along with Swarthmore’s pre-existing first-year seminar could be used as a jumping off point. Given the S.T.E.M. inclinations of many computer science students, the class would not need to involve overly difficult social science or humanities work, but neither would it be a write-off class; the point would be to require rigorous consideration of the end for which a computer science degree is pursued. Ideally, it would be a capped seminar of 25 students or so to facilitate every student’s engagement, although the multiple sections and professors required might prohibit this. The class would be a full credit for majors, though perhaps a half-credit class could be offered for the minor. It would exist either as a prerequisite to the major or as one of the 12 credits. Computer science faculty are spread thin, so staffing would be a problem, yet the class would not necessarily need to be taught by computer science faculty alone, or even at all. The philosophy and political science departments stand out as possible collaborators or alternatives.

I do not fault the computer science department for so far merely focusing on the skills and theory involved in computer science — after all, that is what most fields do, and reasonably so. Yet I do believe that the current environment of the field of tech requires altering the ruling approach of computer science instruction. It seems opposite Swarthmore’s Quaker, liberal arts values not to.

Larkin White

Larkin '22 is a writer from San Francisco who honestly has no idea what he is doing. He prefers cats to dogs, though dogs aren’t bad.

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