Technology and Delegation, Spring 2015

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This is the syllabus for the Spring 2015 Technology and Delegation Seminar, taught by Deirdre K. Mulligan (dkm@ischool). (See also the 2013, 2011, 2010 and 2009 versions.)

Course description

Themistocles said his infant son ruled all Greece -- "Athens rules all Greece; I control Athens; my wife controls me; and my infant son controls her." Thus, nowadays the world is controlled by whoever buys advertising time on Dora the Explorer.
XKCD highlights technology and delegation.

Information technology has been integrated into an array of complex interactions between individuals and the state. Often these technological changes are put forth as inevitable progress toward modernization and as value-neutral means for acting upon policies established through the political branch of government. However, the adoption or introduction of specific technology can obscure profound policy choices and options. Obscurity can arise due to barriers to transparency created by law, such as intellectual property rights asserted to prevent the analysis of software code used in electronic voting systems, due to a lack of necessary expertise to understand the ramifications of a technological shift within the public and private sector entities focused on the relevant policy issues, or, more fundamentally, due to shifts in technology that remove or shift the assumptions on which earlier policies were developed. As a result, the agency, the public, and the political branch of government may overlook the policy-implications in the choice of a new technology.

Through background readings from a range of disciplines and case studies this class will explore instances of discretion delegated to, or embedded in technology--unpacking the process, the substantive outcomes, and the responses from various communities--policy makers, academics, vendors--and disciplines. We will consider techniques for identifying policy issues in technical design, and delegations to technical experts through technology adoption. We will consider the risks and benefits of embedding value and policy choices through technical design versus the adoption of policies or procedures, and rigorously consider the hand-off among them. Topics will include the policy implications of standards, the process and implication of translating law into technological forms, governance implications of government adoption of technology, and government use of technology to regulate behavior and make decisions.

Class schedule

Date Topic Readings
January 20th Introduction to Course
January 27th Policy, technology, and values Read:
February 3rd The problem of ignoring the values in artifacts Read:
February 10th Potential consequences of moving morality around Read:
February 17th Values in technical processes Read:
February 24th Tools for bringing values into technical decisions Read:
  • RFC6973. Cooper, A., Tschofenig, H., Aboba, B., Peterson, J., Morris, J., Hansen, M., Smith Janet, R. "Privacy Considerations for Internet Protocols". 2013.
  • Collins, W. R., & Miller, K. W. 1992. "Paramedic ethics for computer professionals". Journal of Systems and Software, 17(1), 23–38.
  • Department of Homeland Security. Privacy Impact Assessment template. Introduction and the Template (just skim, no need to print this out).
March 3rd Owning values Read:

Examples to talk about in class

March 10th Lab session (harassment and blocklists) Read (if you like): Stuart's paper, in email


March 17th Privatization, technology, and accountability Read:
March 24th Spring break
March 31st Identifying values in Design Read:
  • Friedman, Batya, and Helen Nissenbaum. 1996. “Bias in Computer Systems.” ACM Trans. Inf. Syst. 14 (3): 330–47. doi:10.1145/230538.230561.
  • Nissenbaum, Helen. "Values in technical design." Encyclopedia of science, technology, and ethics (2005): 66-70.
  • Sengers, Phoebe, Kirsten Boehner, Shay David, and Joseph “Jofish” Kaye. 2005. “Reflective Design.” In Proceedings of the 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing: Between Sense and Sensibility, 49–58. CC ’05. New York, NY, USA: ACM.
  • Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. 2001. Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. Springer Science & Business Media. Section 4.
April 7th Lab: Twitter Bot Workshop Skim:
  • Benthall, Sebastian. "Designing Networked Publics for Communicative Action" (draft, in email).

Bring your laptops and we'll bang on the Twitter API together.

Twitter workshop_bots
April 14th Using Code to Govern: Translation and Limitations Read:
April 21st Cybersecurity (with guest: Dave Clark) Read:
April 28th Algorithms Read:


May 5th Course wrap-up

Assignments and Grading

Your grade is based on class participation and assignments.

Class participation accounts for 30% of your grade. This class is designed to hone your critical inquiry skills. You are expected to fully participate--present, actively listen, engage with your classmates and the materials, bring your own insights to the discussion, share your experience and knowledge. Please come prepared to argue, explain, revise, borrow, refine, and of course junk your ideas. Thinking out loud is encouraged. This is how one learns. The success of this class depends upon student's diligent preparation and active participation--both listening and speaking--in class.

Assignments account for the remaining 70% of your grade (1 & 2 @ 15%; 3 @ 40%). They will be graded primarily on substance, however a minimal portion of each grade will reflect organizational clarity, grammar, and presentation style as appropriate. The assignments are staggered throughout the semester. Late assignments will be penalized: each day an assignment is late will result in a half a grade deduction. Recognizing that emergencies arise, exceptions will be made on a case-by-case basis.

The first assignment is a written reflection using readings to discuss and critique an artifact or example of technology and delegation; the second can be a written reflection or a more technical analysis of software or code. The third should be oriented toward production rather than critique. Possible work could include designing a better approach to surfacing values or prototyping a piece of software to meet specific ethical aims. Assignment 3 may be completed by teams of up to 4 people.

First assignment: reflection

A key objective of assignments in this class is to provide you with opportunities to apply both the theoretical and practical learning from the course to new problems. Another, as I've mentioned in class, is to develop your skills as readers--critiquing, building upon, relating various pieces we read.

Reflection pieces are an invitation to synthesize readings and ideas that came up during our discussion, use insights from both to analyze an artifact that's of interest to you. The requirements of the writing are small in number, that you 1) seriously engage with the readings (could be 1 could be 2 could be more); 2) you apply the readings to explore a specific artifact and 3) you write about something that interests you.

Do not, under any circumstances, provide me with a summary of the articles. You've read them. I've read them. I know you've read them.

The form is in between short essay and journal entry. This is a playful style. I want to get a sense of what you are taking away from the class and what sorts of thoughts, ideas, questions it is raising for you.

4-6 pages, double-spaced. (Via email to dmulligan at berkeley dot edu and npdoty at ischool dot berkeley dot edu.)

First assignment due: Thursday 5 March 2015, 11:59pm.

Second assignment: critique

The second assignment offers the opportunity to:

  • use tools, approaches, methods, we've read about and/or discussed in class to critique an artifact or system; or
  • critique a tool(s), like those we've discussed in class for privacy assessment or critical design; or
  • design a new tool for review or design (and explain its relative merits)

The product can be a written piece, a more technical analysis of software or code, or a tool (whatever form that takes). Roughly 4-6 pages, double-spaced for written pieces; technical analysis/tools may have different form of output, but something similar in depth. (Via email to dmulligan at berkeley dot edu and npdoty at ischool dot berkeley dot edu.)

Second assignment due: Monday 20 April 2015, 11:59pm.

Final assignment: production

The third assignment should be oriented toward production rather than critique. Possible work could include (not a complete list!):

  • designing a better approach to surfacing values (this could be a tool or a method); or
  • prototyping a piece of software to meet specific ethical aims

Assignment 3 may be completed by teams of up to four people. Your assignments will be presented in our last class meeting on 5 May 2015 and should also include a written product (a paper; code and a briefer explanation of it; etc.) sent via email by May 12th.