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Contemporary Issues in a Digital World

CS 29000 • Spring 2013 • Tue/Thu 4:30-5:45 • Room TBD
Instructor: Robert Cutler •


With the advent of the internet, the increased use of mobile computing devices, the ubiquitous deployment of sensors, and widespread interconnectivity, the world has changed drastically. Computing devices of all shapes and sizes track what music we listen to, which websites we visit, what topics we’re interested in, how fast we drive, what classes we take, what we buy, and who our friends are. In this digital world, databases store our location, our health, our finances, and our preferences for just about everything.

Our reliance on computing devices for communication, entertainment, recommendations, information, and to help us with myriad tasks ranging from paying our bills to organizing our schedules to keeping in touch with each other has changed society. Soon (if not already), computers will drive our cars, cook our meals, and manage our lives. But they may also deny us health insurance, keep us from gainful employment, and stifle our freedoms. As we collect and use data in unprecedented ways, we need to be thinking about both the short-term and long-term effects of what we are doing.

Throughout this course, we look at the impacts and implications of computers and computing on us – both as individuals and as a society. The issues we examine are not necessarily new; they often existed long before computers and the internet. However, technology can magnify the ramifications of the issues in question; serving as an amplifier to make the effects much more pronounced.

When we’re done, we may not end up with a lot of answers, but we’ll at least know some of the questions we should be asking.


The primary goals for this course are for you to:

  • Learn about relevant contemporary issues in the digital world. By the end of the semester, you should be able to recognize and knowledgeably discuss the social and ethical implications of technology.
  • Hone your critical thinking and reasoning abilities. Through the class discussions, readings, and writings, you should become better at analyzing and understanding issues that affect your life.
  • Strengthen your reading, formal writing, and presentation skills. Practice makes perfect!
  • Have fun! I find these issues not only fascinating but extremely important to us individually and to us as a society. While I don’t expect everyone to have be as passionate about these topics as I am, I do hope that some of my enthusiasm is contagious.


Assessments are a means to help both you and me determine whether you have learned the material in the curriculum. In this class, there are two types of assessments.

Formative assessments are typically qualitative in nature. They help me to adapt my teaching and you to adapt your learning so that you better understand the material. In this class, formative assessments will include class participation and reading summaries.

Summative assessments are often more quantitative. They provide an objective measure of what you have learned and your mastery of the material. In this class, summative assessments will include exams and a presentation.

Grading is based on the following formative and summative assessments:

Attendance and Participation (20%)

Attending class lectures and participating in class discussions are essential to a broad understanding of the course topics. Being prepared for class by reading the assigned articles is integral to successful participation.

Reading Summaries (30%)

Each week, we will consider one theme of computing. Several short readings will be assigned from a variety of sources, often from reports on current events. In addition, you will locate two other articles relevant to the weekly topic.

For one of the assigned readings and one of the articles you find, you will write a 3-4 paragraph annotation containing:

  1. a factual summary of the reading/article which demonstrates your understanding of the major points of the article; and
  2. a reflection describing your personal view of the reading/article.

The annotations should be in a formal academic writing style with proper spelling and grammar. You should provide citations to the assigned reading you choose to write about and to both articles you locate. Citations should be in APA style. Consult Purdue’s OWL website for more information:

Exams (30%)

There will be two midterm exams (15% each). Each exam consists of a multiple choice section covering factual information covered in class or in the readings and a short answer/essay section summarizing and synthesizing the major topic areas of the course.

Final Presentation (20%)

The topics listed below are only the tip of the iceberg. You will form a group of no fewer than two and no more than four students to give a presentation to the class on a topic of your choosing. You can expand on an issue that we briefly mentioned in class or you can pick a new topic that we don’t cover. In either case, you should provide an historical overview of the issue, discuss how computing has impacted it, and facilitate a discussion with the class. You will be assessed on the content, your presentation style, and the participation/effort of all group members. Topics will be submitted to me for approval during week 9 of the course. More information on the presentation will be forthcoming.

Student Conduct and Academic Integrity

You are expected to read and follow Purdue’s written guidelines concerning student conduct and academic integrity. An overview of these guidelines can be found on the Purdue website:

While Purdue’s official policies serve as the final authority on any issues involving student conduct and/or academic integrity, they can be summarized as follows: act with integrity in a polite, honest, and professional manner and do not submit work that is not your own.

Tentative List of Weekly Course Topics

The following are just some of the course topics we'll be looking at each week. We'll be examining both the positive and negative ways in which computing technology is changing our world.

Big Data, Data Mining, and Machine Learning

With the advent of the internet and ubiquitous data collection, the amount of information stored about each of us is growing exponentially. Known as Big Data, this vast conglomeration of bits shapes our lives in myriad ways. We look at what Big Data is, how it is collected, stored, and used, and why it is impacting almost everything we do.

Privacy, Anonymity, and Accountability

It is almost impossible to walk down the street in a major city without being in view of one or more cameras. Almost every cell phone has a camera that can record events and upload them instantly to make them public. Electronic toll passes, cell phones, and internet logs track where you are and where you’ve been both virtually and in the real world. Is privacy a thing of the past? Should we (or is it even possible to) allow people to be anonymous anymore? We look at the issues of privacy, anonymity, and accountability.

Intellectual Property

There are many different types of property whose ownership is protected under the law. Personal property includes physical objects such as tables, automobiles, and clothes. Real property is another name for land. Intellectual property includes the expression of ideas in writings, drawings, music, or inventions. However, it is less clear how one’s data is protected or even who owns it. We examine property rights historically and discuss whether the current intellectual property law is appropriate and/or effective in today’s technological world.

Democracy and Voting

Consider an election where 35% of the voters prefer candidate A (then candidates B, C, and D in that order), 15% of the voters prefer candidate B (then candidates D, C, and A), 30% of the voters prefer candidate C (then candidates D, B, and A), and the remaining 20% prefer candidate D (then candidates C, B, and A). Assuming that our goal is a “fair” outcome, who should win the election and how can we know that the outcome represents the actual votes cast? We look at a history of voting, the different methods that can be used to tabulate votes, and the issues involved in ensuring an accurate outcome (especially when voting using electronic voting machines or the internet).

Democracy and Participation

Governments in many countries (including the United States) seek to limit access to information by their citizens. Yet recent events in Egypt, Iran, and Iraq have shown how difficult it is to do so. We look at how technology has helped to facilitate change and whether there are circumstances where too much informational freedom can be harmful.

Gaming and Gamification

Gaming is fast becoming the primary entertainment medium in this country. People create alternate personas, invest hundreds or thousands of hours of time, and spend real money to buy virtual goods in virtual worlds – with very real world impacts. We look at the gamification of life and the social and ethical implications that it entails.


Wikipedia, Khan Academy, and massively online courses are changing the face of education at all levels. But can the quality of a course with 150,000 registered students be as high as in a course of 20? Initiatives such as One Laptop Per Child are bringing technology to developing countries. Is this helping or hurting these children? We examine technology and education; its potential and its reality.

Financial Markets

The stock market was originally a market where real people met each other and bought and sold physical shares of stock in companies. Today, sophisticated computer algorithms execute millions of trades per day without any human intervention. We discuss the implications of such a system on the economy, corporations, and individual investors.

New Economies

New technologies often create new economies and computing and the internet are no exceptions. We look at various new types of businesses and companies such as Facebook, Kickstarter, Kiva, Groupon, Ebay, Google, and Amazon that have changed traditional economic models.


Computer programs “read” your email and display advertisements to you based on its content. Stores capture what you buy, when you buy it, how you pay for it, and construct a consumer profile of you to help them target their advertising to you. It sounds great unless you’re the fifteen-year-old girl whose parents found out she was pregnant because a store she shopped at determined she was pregnant based on her purchase history and sent her a special circular marketing baby-related items. We look at the pros and cons of targeted marketing and how computers (and Big Data) have changed how retailers do business.

Managing Risk

Many auto insurance companies now offer you a discount on your premium if you allow them to install a device in your car that records your driving habits. Speed too often or drive recklessly and they may decide not to insure you anymore. Health insurance companies look at your medical history to decide whether they want to insure you. What if they start looking at your shopping habits and decide that you’re eating too much junk food and raise your premiums? Are these acceptable uses of technology and computing? We look at these and other issues in the field of risk management.

Governments tend to react to rather than anticipate technological change. Elected representatives (who make the laws) with little or no background in science and technology may not understand the nuances (or even the broad concepts) of the issues they are legislating. We look historically at technology legislation and discuss whether today’s rapid pace of technological change requires us to change our system.

The Past, the Future, and Sustainability

We already have (or will soon have) smart phones, driverless cars, robotic butlers, and intelligent houses. What’s next? Furthermore, is our technological growth sustainable? We look at how the internet was developed and examine what the future holds from both a technological and an environmental perspective.

ci2013/start.txt · Last modified: 2013/02/02 07:50 (external edit)