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Computer Systems and Values
(Helen Nissenbaum, 5/2001)
by Douglas Dixon
Does technology have anything to do with values? Can we develop
technology for its own sake, independent of its impact on society? Or do
information systems actually embody values?
"Information technology changes the world, and some of these
changes challenge previous commitments to values and principles," writes
Helen Nissenbaum, research associate at Princeton University's Center for Human
Values. "Yet the idea of values embodied in computer and information
systems suggests motion in the opposite direction, from values to technology.
Values affect the shape of technologies."
In an article in IEEE Computer magazine, March 2001, titled "How
Computer Systems Embody Values," Nissenbaum calls for "engineering
activism" to "advocate on behalf of values" in order to influence
the inevitable incorporation of values into computer systems.
Nissenbaum is spending this year at the Institute for Advanced Study's
School of Social Science. Next year she is moving to NYU to join the Department
of Culture and Communications. Her areas of expertise are the social, ethical,
and political dimensions of science and technology, with an emphasis on
information and communications technology. She has written on issues relating to
privacy, property rights, electronic publication, accountability, and values
embedded in the design of computer systems. She is the author of the book
Emotion and Focus (University of Chicago Press), and co-editor (with D. J.
Johnson) of Computers, Ethics and Social Values (Prentice-Hall). She is one of
four founding editors of the international journal, Ethics and Information
"Trained as a philosopher," Nissenbaum writes, "I am
nevertheless increasingly drawn toward the science and engineering of
information technology in my work on its ethical, social, and political
She traces her interest to a research project on bias in computer
systems published in 1996: "A compelling and mysterious idea emerged from
this project: Computer and information systems can embody values. I found this
idea so compelling that it has all but hijacked the path of my work since then.
Its mystery lies in seeing values as part of technology, a perspective not
usually adopted by scholars and researchers who study the social, ethical, and
political aspects of information technology."
Nissenbaum originally studied mathematics and philosophy at the
University of Witwatersand, Johannesburg, and earned a B.A. with honors in
philosophy in 1976. She then moved to Stanford University, and earned an M.A. in
education in 1978 and a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1983. She held a postdoctoral
fellowship at the Center for the Study of Language and Information and was
assistant director of the Symbolic Systems Program at Stanford. She then moved
to Princeton in 1991 as the associate director of Princeton University's Center
for Human Values.
Nissenbaum organizes her work on the ethical dimension of
technological change into two categories, depending on whether the focus is on
the social change caused by technology, or on the values themselves embodied in
"Information technology has radically altered our lives and even
our selves," Nissenbaum writes. "The radical effects of the process
have extended to institutions, social processes, relationships, power
structures, work, play, education, and beyond." Society then struggles with
the resulting social changes:
Computer systems replace human decision-making.
In situations where "computer systems replace humans who act in
positions of responsibility -- prescribing drugs, making investment decisions,
controlling aircraft," the concern is that "lines of accountability
and responsibility will be disturbed and possibly erased. Where once we could
hold someone responsible for failure and its consequences, now there is a
The digital divide.
Disparities in access to new technology between the dot-com elite and the
disadvantaged also raises the possibility that "information technology will
cause even greater social injustice than we currently experience."
Values Embodied In Technology
Even more, Nissenbaum argues that we must accept that "systems
have moral or political properties." In fact, these are some of the most
contentious issues that have been playing out in recent headlines:
Intellectual property and Napster
"Because intellectual production has been so profoundly affected by
information technology," Nissenbaum writes, "it strikes at the heart
of previously settled ideas and valuations of intellectual property." We
have seen this in the "raging indignation on both sides of Napster,"
where the core of the technological development of peer-to-peer music sharing is
a fundamental threat to the foundations of the music business, as well as other
forms of content creation and licensing, including movies and books.
Intel Pentium III chip with embedded serial number
Intel's decision to stamp its new processor with a digital serial number as
a security and copy protection mechanism caused a public furor over privacy
concerns, and Intel eventually disabled the feature by default.
Nissenbaum is interested in the link between values and design in this
case, wondering why Intel had decided to add the serial number: "Had it
overlooked the privacy implications, merely hoped no one would notice, or made a
considered judgment that the potential security benefits out-weighed privacy
concerns? Had there been deliberation behind closed doors after some project
manager, designer, engineer, or marketing executive alerted company executives
to the hazard? Was the decision a sign of carelessness, arrogance, or mere
misjudgment? Was Intel out of touch with prevailing values, or did it assume
that the company carried enough clout to shape them?"
Nissenbaum argues that these issues must be addressed: "We cannot
simply align the world with the values and principles we adhered to prior to the
advent of technological challenges. Rather, we must grapple with the new demands
that changes wrought by the presence and use of information technology have
placed on values and moral principles."
But the idea of systems embodying values is disquieting for both
social scientists and technologists. So her article in IEEE Computer challenges
engineers to face an unfamiliar obligation: "To perceive not only the usual
set of properties that the systems they build or design may embody, but those
systems' moral properties as well: bias, anonymity, privacy, security, and so
on. The challenge of building computer systems is transformed into a forum for
activism -- engineering activism."
Nissenbaum admits that it may be difficult to address such questions,
"because factors in the real world -- such as bosses, share-holders,
regulations, competitors, and resource limits -- can prove hostile to yet
another layer of constraints."
"Yet tempting as it may be to ignore value properties," she
writes, "doing so will not make them go away. Systems and devices will
embody values whether or not we intend or want them to. Ignoring values risks
surrendering the determination of this important dimension to chance or some
"Act," she challenges engineers, and anyone else involved in
designing information systems, "make, build, or design the necessary
changes, if doing so is within your power."
Helen F Nissenbaum
NYU 1/04 - www.nyu.edu/projects/nissenbaum/index.html