Feb. 22-28, 2002
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Johnson takes ethical tack to engineering
Virtual reality may not be real, but people logging in are still responsible for their actions

Deborah Johnson

Photo by Ian Bradshaw

By Charlotte Crystal and Josephine Pipkin

Deborah Johnson is a leading voice in a small but growing chorus of philosophers who are adapting traditional theoretical tools to cultivate the new field of computer ethics.

Johnson joined U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science last fall as the Anne Shirley Carter Olsson Professor of Applied Ethics. She is the first person to hold the chair, established in 1996 with an anchor grant by the Elis Olsson Memorial Foundation, which has also endowed ethics professorships at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration and the School of Medicine.

Along with her colleagues in the Engineering School’s Division of Technology, Culture and Communication (TCC), Johnson urges engineering students to ponder the human side of technology.

“Engineering is a social activity,” she said. “An ethical approach to engineering means that engineers take responsibility for creating things that benefit society as a whole, along with responding to a specific client need.”

Last semester, she taught an undergraduate class on “Information Technology, Ethics and Policy,” which drew engineering and media studies students in equal measure. This semester, she is teaching an undergraduate course on “Ethics and Technology” for engineering students and a graduate seminar on the same topic for students in engineering, medicine and business.

“I try to show how intimately technology and ethics are connected,” she said. “I go back to the old questions and explore with the students the ways in which material objects carry the values of their creation: the pyramids were built by slaves; Volkswagen cars were designed by Nazis. Material objects cannot be separated from the social institutions that brought them about.”

Her current research interests include the ethical issues raised by virtual reality.
“A lot of people think they’re not responsible for their behavior in virtual environments,” she said. “Why is that? Because it’s not real. Because they’re anonymous. But it’s still you. It’s still your actions. You’re still responsible for your actions and their impact on others.”

She recently completed the third edition of Computer Ethics, her popular textbook that offers scenarios guaranteed to spark class discussions of ethics in an era of information technology: Should I copy proprietary software? Should a company make use of data-mining technology? What is the professional responsibility of a software engineer regarding gender bias in software he’s writing? Are sexual fantasies naming real people and posted on the Web protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech?

In the book, Johnson examines the ways in which traditional philosophical concepts and theories apply — or not — to the world of computers, and explores related topics of intellectual property, privacy and professional ethics.

In her spare time, she co-edits a book series on women, gender and technology and the journal, Ethics and Information Technology.

Johnson came to U.Va. last fall from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she taught public policy and served as the director of GIT’s program in Philosophy, Science and Technology. Before that, she taught philosophy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for more than 20 years, leaving her post as department chair of science and technology studies in 1998 for Georgia.

Johnson earned her doctorate in philosophy from the University of Kansas in Lawrence and joined Rensselaer as a research associate with its Center for the Study of the Human Dimensions of Science and Technology, which sowed the seeds of her career. There, she was challenged to find ways to interest her students in philosophy, she said.

“I had engineering students who were indifferent to the very idea of philosophy, so I used computer-related problems to intrigue them. I found interesting issues of privacy, property rights and alienation surrounding computers, and I put these to the students as an incentive to get them to read more deeply about the philosophical issues.”

Johnson said she was drawn to U.Va. for several reasons. She was intrigued by the breadth of opportunities offered by a university in contrast with a technical institute. Not only was the University ranked among the best in the country, but it offered a strong engineering school and a good philosophy department as well. She was particularly impressed by the faculty and programming in the Engineering School’s humanities division. And she was attracted by the University’s multidisciplinary Institute for Practical Ethics and opportunities to interact with nationally recognized colleagues around Grounds.

In the classroom, Johnson sees her task as encouraging students to think about the implications of technology before it is created, rather than afterward: “If the designers of technology were to think about the ethical and social implications of their designs before they became a reality, wouldn’t the world be a better place!”


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