A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues for Computing Technology

Posted on by Ben Rothke

In the 4th edition of A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues for Computing Technology, author Sara Baase takes a broad look at the social, legal and ethical issues around technology and their implications.   Baase notes that her primary goal in writing the book is for computer professionals to understand the implications of what they create and how it fits into society.

The book is an interesting analysis of a broad set of topics.  Combined with Baase’s superb writing skills, the book is both an excellent reference and a fascinating read.

The books gets it title from the mythical tale of Prometheus, who stole heavenly fire and gave it to the human race, which then used it to empower civilization.  Someone commented to the author that perhaps Pandora’s Box may be a better metaphor to use, as Pandora’s Box held all of the ills of mankind.

While Baase wrote the book to be used in her computer science course, the book is not an indigestible academic tome; rather a very topical reference. Its 9 densely packed chapters covering nearly 450 pages provide a comprehensive locus.

While legal themes are pervasive throughout the book, Baase writes that she is a computer scientist and not a lawyer and that appropriate legal counsel should be obtained before drawing any legal conclusions.

Chapter 1 opens with an overview of how change and unexpected developments effect IT projects and information technology.  And that is the overall theme of the book, of how new things often have unexpected problems and results.  Anyone familiar with the Risks Digest edited by Peter Neumann will be at home with these topics. 

The chapter details the notion of a kill switch and details some of the potential uses and risks involved, and how that more often than not, theses kill switches are improperly designed and deployed. 

The chapter concludes with the important thought that there are no simple answers (contrary to popular media belief) and that we can’t solve ethical problems by simply applying a formula, algorithm or deploying a piece of software.  This is due to the complexity of human nature and that ethical theories don’t always provide clear and incontrovertible positions on all issues.

The chapter closes, like all of the chapters in the book with a series of review exercises, general exercises, assignments (remember this is a textbook), a list of books and articles for further reading, and an extremely detailed set of endnotes.  Each chapter has a long set of endnotes due to Baase’s attention to details and excellent research.  This assignments and exercises for the class the book is used for can be downloaded here.  Baase also has a web site with other supplementary information and resources..

Chapter 2 details various issues around data and personal privacy. An interesting fact detailed is that Maricopa Country in Arizona was one of the first municipalities to put complete public records on the web.  Little did county official know that such an action would eventually lead the county to have the highest rate of identity theft in the USA.

The chapter also compares US privacy regulations with that of the European Union (EU). Baase notes that the perception is that US privacy policy is far behind that of the EU.  But what many people don’t realize is that the US and EU have very different cultures and traditions, which manifest itself in how each regulates privacy. 

Baase writes that the EU tends to put more emphasis on regulation and centralization; whereas the US puts more emphasis on contracts, consumer pressure, flexibility and freedom of the market.  The US also has higher penalties for abuse of personal information via deceptive and unfair business practices.

Chapter 7 deals with how to evaluate and control technology and is the most insightful chapter in the book.  Baase writes of the inherent conflict between a democracy and open Internet, while dealing with the plethora of incorrect, foolish and biased information.  She makes note of some totalitarian regimes that prohibit anti-government use of social media.  She illustrates cases where these countries (China and Syria are just two of them) that create bogus dissident sites, find out which people are sympathetic to the cause, and then arrests these people.

Baase details and defends against many neo-Luddite views of computers, technology and quality of life.  Baase provides numerous anecdotes of environmental and other anti-technology groups that rail against technology, but use computers and the web.  She writes of the editor who considers himself a neo-Luddite, a person who sees technology as inherently evil; yet disseminates his views via email, computers and laser printers.  Compare this with members of various anti-vaccination movements, who are obvious to the millions of lives saved by vaccinations.

The chapter also details some of the duplicitous views of Kirkpatrick Sale, another neo-Luddite who rages against the computer machine, while simultaneously benefiting significantly from it, and using it.

Baase defends technology in writing that those who are critical of modern technology point out their weaknesses, but often ignore the weakness of the alternatives.  An example she gives is the millions of acres once needs to grow feed for horses and the hundreds of tons of horse manure dropped on the streets of cities, as recent as a century ago.  Candles, gas lamps and kerosene filled homes with fumes and soot; doesn’t that make electricity a valuable commodity. 

Baase gives many other examples of the problems and controversial issues surrounding technology.  But more importantly, notes, and celebrates the enormous benefits that computer technology and the Internet has brought us.

The only significant negative of the book is its price tag. While it is officially a textbook, it is manifest in its suggested retail price of $102.00.  Note though the book is available on Amazon for much cheaper, in addition to used copies which are even less.

Social media, computers and other aspect of technology have brought massive changes to society.  Many of these changes are highly beneficial, others not.  There are myriad questions that need to be asked, and ideas that need to be understood, and the books covers and answers those in details.

For those looking for an across-the-board superb reference on social and other issues in computing,A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues for Computing Technology is a terrific resource and an invaluable reference guide. 

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad


data security privacy

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