Digital Ethics Symposium

On Monday, 10/29/12, Loyola University’s Center for Digital Ethics and Policy held its second International Digital Ethics Symposium in Chicago. This was the same day that Superstorm Sandy hit, but quite a few intrepid speakers made the journey regardless. I took the Purple Line south and spent the day listening to a range of really interesting talks.

My own interest in digital ethics is broad. I’m always looking for ways to structure inquiry about ethics into my graduate courses in new media studies. In preparation for writing an article about the ethics of sponsored digital storytelling, I also read a lot of interesting work about the ethics of life writing and documentary (G. Thomas Couser’s Vulnerable Subjects was a favorite).

The symposium brought together many different perspectives: over breakfast, I met a digital marketer from a well-known consumer products company, two staff members in the digital learning division of one of Chicago’s big museums, and a PhD student in Philosophy. The talks were by academics from Communication, Journalism, Law, Media Studies, Philosophy and Literature – a compelling range of disciplinary perspectives.

Helen Nissenbaum gave the day’s opening talk. I’d read parts of her book Privacy in Context, and her presentation applied some of the key ideas from that book – especially that the “Net” is a radically heterogeneous place, where one-size-fits-all approaches to ethics will not work – to ethical issues related to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS). The big course management tools collect tons of user-specific data, and no one’s giving much attention to how that data will be used.

Sherry Turkle gave the keynote via Skype from Cambridge. She’s a compelling speaker – she has opinions and will speak them – and her talk hit on many of the points that she makes in Alone Together. I assigned a chapter of that book to students in my Proseminar in New Media Studies course last term, and their responses were divided. For some, it put into words their own anxieties about how technology might be diminishing human interaction; for others, it was too alarmist. I think one of my favorite lines from Turkle’s talk was that “everyone should have something to hide in a democracy,” a point she made in response to how willing we seem to be to put our data, our feelings, our physical location ‘out there.’ She also talked a bit about Apple’s Siri ads, and how they’re teaching us how to have a conversation with a machine. I spent about five amusing minutes that night chatting with my phone as it it were a psychiatrist (not unlike this). Clearly, Apple’s engineers had anticipated a few of my questions.

Overall, this was an excellent event. I left with a better sense of which disciplines are interested in digital ethics and how they approach the subject, a list of resources and readings to check out – including the virtue ethics philosophy of Phillipa Foot, Gary Kovacs’ TED talk, “Collusion: Tracking the Trackers,” and The Consumer (Data) Privacy Bill of Rights – and a plan to come back to the Symposium next year.


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