Johnson takes ethical tack to engineering
may not be real, but people logging in are still responsible for
by Ian Bradshaw
By Charlotte Crystal and Josephine Pipkin
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.
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
with her colleagues in the Engineering Schools Division
Culture and Communication (TCC), Johnson urges engineering students
to ponder the human side of technology.
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.
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.
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.
current research interests include the ethical issues raised by
A lot of people think theyre not responsible for their
behavior in virtual environments, she said. Why is
that? Because its not real. Because theyre anonymous.
But its still you. Its still your actions. Youre
still responsible for your actions and their impact on others.
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 hes writing? Are sexual
fantasies naming real people and posted on the Web protected by
the First Amendments guarantee of freedom of speech?
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.
her spare time, she co-edits a book series on women, gender and
technology and the journal, Ethics and Information Technology.
came to U.Va. last fall from the Georgia Institute of Technology,
where she taught public policy and served as the director of GITs
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.
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,
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
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 Schools
humanities division. And she was attracted by the Universitys
multidisciplinary Institute for Practical Ethics and opportunities
to interact with nationally recognized colleagues around Grounds.
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, wouldnt the world be a better