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Interviews With Past SIGCAS Award Recipients - December 2009

by chris — last modified 2010-03-03 19:30

Celebrating SIGAS’ 40th Anniversary - Interviews With Past SIGCAS Award Recipients

Don Gotterbarn:       Making A Difference 2002……Ken Himma

Chuck Huff:              Outstanding Service 2005……….Flo Appel      

Tom Jewett:              Outstanding Service 2000.…Matthew North

C. Diane Martin:       Outstanding Service 2002….Carol Spradling

Keith Miller:              Outstanding Service 2006….Katherine Henderson

Jim Moor:                 Making a Difference 2003…….John Sullins      

Simon Rogerson:      Making A Difference 2005……Ken Himma      

Ben Shneiderman:     Making A Difference 2001…Camille Dickson-Deane        

Eugene Spafford:      Making A Difference 2004…Camille Dickson-Deane        

Herman Tavani:        Outstanding Service 2008…..Katherine Henderson

Jim Thatcher:       Making A Difference 2008…..Matthew North

Don Gotterbarn: Making A Difference 2002

Ken Himma, Computers Society editor

Seattle Pacific University

[Q1]: Looking back, what was it that first sparked your interest in computer/information ethics?

[A]:   In the mid 70's I left teaching philosophy and went into computer consulting with no academic training in computing. I was amazed at the kinds of critical projects I worked on. I, like my colleagues in the industry, loved the challenging problems. Each successful project (defined as somehow getting a computer to do something that resembled what the customer wanted) was viewed as a personal success. I was getting concerned by the number of projects developed (by me and by others) without any prior concern for the impact of the product or of the quality of the work. It was clear to me that some attention to potential impacts would change the way systems were developed and change their impact.

          Joseph Weizenbaum's (1976), "Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation" gave clear expression to my concerns. As a philosopher, I had talked about values but had not realized that the products we develop and the way we develop them embody values.  At that time, philosophers seemed to be the only ones publicly addressing the problem -- Jim Moor's discussion in 1978 addressing the question "Are their decisions computers should not make?" being a noteworthy example.  Being in the industry my concerns were very pragmatic: we needed standards and ways to raise the professional's consciousness about these issues.  Variations of this concern with helping professionals identify and mitigate potential negative ethical and social impacts of their work have been my focus since then.

There needed to be more attention paid to the domain of professional ethics - the values that guide the day-to-day activities of computing professionals in their roles as designers and developers of computer artifacts and in the ethical decisions they make during the development of these artifacts

[Q2]: In your opinion, what is/are the most pressing issues in our field today?  Why?

[A]:   Many people talk about a particular type of issue- pornography on the web, privacy, or intellectual property. I start from an optimistic position that most people want to do the right thing. Even for ethical people, one of the major problems in computer ethics is maintaining an awareness of the ethical problems when being distracted by the wonderful possibilities created by a new technology. As any new technology is developed, the developers tend to be fascinated with the technology and the exciting but distracting challenges of exploring it and getting it to work.  The awareness of potential negative ethical impacts frequently comes only later and is evidenced by the amount of rework that needs to be done to mitigate what might have been seen earlier. Unfortunately the rework occasionally includes an overreaction that does harm in another direction. This cycle of fascination with a technology and seeing it as value-free during its early development has repeated itself. The Internet was wonderful in 1994 but then, with a concern with pornography, naked pictures were restricted on the Internet, including those of the Venus de Milo and medical work on the progress of breast cancer if they contained photographs. One of my major concerns is that we repeat this process without approaching each new technology with an eye to the values it may embody while we are developing it.  Starting out with the concern for those values will produce a better (not perfect) technology.

In order to make 'becoming aware of potential ethical issues at the beginning of development' effective, we need to develop and discuss effective decision procedures on how to respond to the identified ethical issues. We need to go beyond the overly simplistic approaches and understand the way the philosophical theories actually apply in the real world. (See J. Moor "Just Consequentialism" for an effective approach.)

[Q3]: Where do you see the field in the future?

[A]:   In the future, I will be surprised by the development and impact of new technologies. Having been in this field of computer ethics for a long time, I have seen a slow intermittent forward progress in addressing these issues. Most technologies were slow to become self-aware of their ethical impact. It is a forward step that as Nano-technology is developing its ethical issues are being addressed, but we are slower to address the ethical issues of social networking. There seems to be more of a global agreement on the ethical responsibilities of software developers. For example the joint Code of Ethics developed by the ACM and IEEE has been adopted by professional societies in several countries and as a standard for work in several corporations.

The future is unpredictable and I have no idea what it will bring; but I know it will be better if we do not mistakenly start out thinking that technology and values can be separated, mistakenly think things will be o.k. if we first worry about the technology and then worry about the ethics.

[Q4]: What advice or words of encouragement would you give to up and coming scholars?

[A]:   Ethics is not an easy field. Ethics is changing and has a history, albeit a somewhat brief history. New and continuing work in this area from theoreticians and practitioners is important. Forwarding scholarship will have a significant impact. Unfortunately, people may have impassioned opinions about the way people and computers interact, and sometimes think that those opinions are automatically legitimate scholarship. Computer ethics has matured and like other domains we need to be familiar with the literature to do work in this area.

Chuck Huff: Outstanding Service 2005

Flo Appel, SIGCAS Chair

Saint Xavier University

Transcribed from email correspondence

[Q1]     Looking back, what was it that first sparked your interest in computer/information ethics?

[A]:      It was a recognition on my part that two research areas of mine could be combined to help us understand this area.  I was interested in what is now called "social nformatics" in Europe and also in how people think about responsibility.  Combining these lead me to begin thinking about how computer professional think about their own responsibilities as they design systems.  But it was an invitation from Thomas Finholt to participate in a conference and then from Dianne Martin to join a workshop that crystallized this approach.  It is one I have been following ever since.

 [Q2]     In your opinion, what is/are the most pressing issues in our field today?  Why?

[A]       Designing pedagogy that invites computer professionals to take responsibility for the systems they design and providing support and training to give them the skills and knowledge to do so.  At a conceptual level, I think the most difficult issues have to do with how we parse responsibility for autonomous agents.

[Q3]     Where do you see the field in the future?

[A]       Given the fragmented nature of research and innovation, I am not sure about whether there will be "a field" in the future.  I hope we will be able to provide some mechanism for the various different approaches to learn from each other.

[Q4]     What advice or words of encouragement would you give to up and coming

[A]       Do not stay to loyal to "your discipline."  Cross disciplinary lines and join with others to focus on pursuing a puzzle together.  This will make your work richer, and help keep the field from fragmenting.

[Q5]     Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers
on the occasion of SIGCAS' 40th anniversary

[A]       Remember SIGCAS as one of the early and continuing efforts to bring people together to understand computing and society issues.  Use it and contribute to it to keep the conversation going.

Tom Jewett:   Outstanding Service 2000

Matthew North,Computers Society editor

Washington Jefferson College

[Q1]: I noticed on your online biography that you first earned a bachelor’s degree in music.  I can relate, having earned a bachelor’s degree in history before moving in to the world of computing as a professional.  Looking back, what was it that first sparked your interest in computing, and do you think non-traditional paths people sometimes take on the road to a career in computing is significant?

[A]:  This is going to be fairly complicated.  For me, the path into computing was really, really nontraditional.  There are two parts to this.  My introduction into computing was pretty accidental.  I was in the Air Force, courtesy of the draft board.  It was 1967, and of course you remember at that time they needed bodies. My second Air Force assignment was in missile operations at Grand Forks, ND.  One of the things I became interested in was the training aspect, and we had a simulator, pretty much like an aircraft or pilot simulator to help train on all of the missile control equipment.  This thing was of course computer driven—a late 1960s model—an old UNIVAC shipboard machine that we were using, and it was not very cooperative. So I taught myself to program it in assembly language, actually in octal, believe it or not.  So that was what started the interest in computing. When I was transferred to Vandenberg AFB, UC Santa Barbara had a Master’s program in Computer Science so I decided I’d better learn something about what I’m doing.

The second part of my response is how did I get into computers and society having been an assembly language programmer?  The answer to that one is that after I retired from the Air Force, I knew I wanted to go into college teaching so I started a PhD in Information and Computer Science at UC Irvine. They had a program in social aspects of computing that was run by Rob Kling, who was my PhD advisor.  As a result of that, I became interested in SIGCAS and started doing some teaching at UCI.  Rob had some teaching materials I used and others were available through SIGCAS, most especially Don Gotterbarn’s and Rich Epstein’s work that was published in Computers and Society.

So yes, I’m convinced that breadth of interests and experience is significant, no matter what specific path someone wants to take.

[Q2]: What in your opinion, what are the most pressing issues in the computing field today?  Why?

[A]:   That question is a little easier for me because as you know, most of the work I do today focuses on making the Web accessible for people with disabilities.  I’m very much aware of other social issues that are hot topics today—social networking is certainly a rich area for analysis—but to me, my real focus is on the idea of making the web truly world wide and usable for everyone, including people with disabilities.  Today, the big thing is that the technology is here, we know how to do it.  The capabilities exist for someone like my colleague who is partially sighted from birth; he can do things that he never could do before.  The problem is, people don’t seem to know how to make web pages, well I should say very few people, know how to make web pages that are up to the standards that enable people to do that.  So there’s a huge education job, and that’s really what I do.

It’s not something that I’m working on alone, however.  I was very much involved in the Making a Difference Award that was given to Jim Thatcher, including presenting that to him at the AccessU conference a year ago.  Jim is one of our absolute pioneers in the accessibility area.  I’ve been very fortunate to have known and worked with him for a number of years and he’s been a very good friend and a real inspiration. There are quite a number of others also working in this area.

[Q3]: Where do you see the field in the future?

[A]:   I guess with anything in technology, the biggest challenge is just to keep up.  The technology is moving so quickly it outruns the standards, quite frankly.  Being part of W3C now, I’m painfully aware of how standards are built and how long it takes.  Trying to keep up is difficult.  People expect the top-notch, latest technology with all the bells and whistles—RSS, AJAX, etc.—and with my computer hat on, I love it. But with my accessibility hat on, I say ‘Hey guys, let’s not outrun the capability to make things usable for people that need it’.  It a tough balancing act, to roll out new technology and make it accessible.  Then of course the social networking issues are huge, and I can see all kinds of really interesting possibilities there.  Actually a couple of friends finally twisted my arm enough to have a Facebook page, which I look at about once a month.  I haven’t looked too extensively at some of those social networking tools for accessibility, but I do know many of them lack some of the basics.  If they were made accessible, that could be huge.  My students recently said they couldn’t understand how people had grown up in a world without Twitter, but even today, without accessibility, some people still don’t have access to tools that most in the population now take for granted.  It’s just a continuous job of trying to keep up.

[Q4]: What advice or words of encouragement would you give to up and coming scholars in computing?

[A]:   Since you are one of those up and coming scholars, I’ll say that I’m delighted to see you’re involved with SIGCAS.  I’d recommend that everyone re-read Rich Epstein’s ‘Forecast’ in the 30th Anniversary issue of Computers & Society.  It’s one of my favorite pieces of his.  Back then there were a group of us all talking, unsuccessfully, about how we could get new blood into SIGCAS.  It seems that Flo (Appel) has been doing a really good job of that.  For up and coming scholars, certainly if you’re researching in the social area, everything I said in my previous answer is relevant here.  When I see everything that’s going on in social networking, I see massive amounts of conference papers that could easily result from looking at any number of aspects of technologies like Twitter, Facebook, etc.  We could get all kinds of PhDs in Sociology and other disciplines out of that.  There’s no question about it, up and coming scholars will have to be interdisciplinary in their work.  I absolutely understand the problems of departmental parochialism and conference territorialism, but there’s no such thing as a stand-alone discipline anymore.  For example, I taught User Interface Design and Social Issues, and I got a chance at AccessU in Austin this year to participate in a track for usability specialists, many of them unfamiliar with accessibility.  It was a wonderful cross-talk with people from a diverse range of backgrounds and fields.  I gave a talk just this last week at HCI International where a whole panel of us in the area of accessibility spoke to an audience that was primarily user interface oriented.  So those are quick examples where as a scholar you need to be interdisciplinary in your work and your thinking.

[Q]:   Can you share with us a paper or article by someone else you think is important?  Do you have an upcoming paper or publication our readers should be looking for?

[A]:   There’s not anything current that’s specifically on my mind, but as I mentioned previously, a re-reading of Epstein’s ‘Silicon Valley Sentinal-Observer’ columns in C&S would be worthwhile.  The thing is, everything he said came true because he wasn’t really talking about the future.

As far as my own writing, my talk at HCI International is in the proceedings.  It deals with the evolution of an accessibility testing protocol—mostly an update of my article in C&S last year.  Another one I did recently was at the International Conference on Technology and Disabilities in March.  That paper was with Wayne Dick dealing with Section 508 and WCAG2—pretty specialized stuff.

[Q5]: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

[A]:   For one thing, I’d certainly like to congratulate SIGCAS at this point.  The fact that it’s still going is pretty impressive.  There was a time in the past when I thought we were pretty much dead, when we ran into financial problems several years ago.  But we navigated through that, and I think most importantly, through the following election we were able to get some new folks in leadership, which has been huge.  Those who have helped the group continue, and continue as strongly as it has, are to be commended.

The other thing would be to reiterate the push for interdisciplinary thinking—of course Computers and Society is interdisciplinary by nature.  There are so many opportunities in looking at the ways we are accommodating, or not accommodating, people that need accessibility.  There are many who could very much benefit from information technology resources, but often people just don’t consider that.  My biggest thrust today is to encourage people to design well in the first place and everyone will benefit.  It’s like building ramps into a building—you put them in and everybody uses them; they’re not just for wheelchairs.  Information systems design should be the same way.

C. Dianne Martin: Outstanding Service 2002

Carol Spradling, on behalf of the Computers & Society editorial board

Northwest Missouri State University,

[Q1]: Looking back, what was it that first sparked your interest in computer/information ethics?

[A]:   I took a special topics course in Computers and Society in 1970 under Ron Becker at the U of Maryland. From that point on, it became a passion for me.

[Q]:   In the June 2001 Computers and Society Chair’s column, you said “One could argue that SIGCAS represents the social conscience of ACM.“ and later “After all, we are the conscience of ACM!”. Many have used this quote to explain the significance of SIGCAS. What prompted you to write this statement and do you think it is still true today?

[A]:   Yes, it is still true today. SIGCAS is very important to an organization such as ACM with a primary focus on technological advances. By calling attention to the social impact and ethical concerns caused by emerging technologies, SIGCAS raises the alarm about the unintended consequences of such technologies. With a membership comprised of social scientists, philosophers, psychologists, policy makers as well as computer scientists, SIGCAS provides the forum for a broad-based discussion of compelling societal issues. An example of the role of conscience played by SIGCAS was the development and adoption of the ACM Code of Ethics, led by SIGCAS membership.

[Q]: Your SIGCAS tenure and involvement in shaping social and professional issue discussions has been extensive. Describe your experiences as you and others worked on the development of the ACM Social and Professional Issues and the ACM Code of Ethics. What was the most rewarding experience?

[A]:   Working on the ACM Code of Ethics in 1990-92 was an amazing experience. The core group of people who helped to develop the code was committed to getting it right and providing a code that would stand the test of time. I believe that we succeeded. The other project involving SIGCAS members was the NSF-funded ImpactCS Project (1994-1998), in which we released three reports that provided the intellectual framework and defined the knowledge units for ethics and social impact to be integrated into the CS curriculum in a meaningful way. Again, the core group of about 25 people who worked on that project had diverse backgrounds and strong opinions, but they all agreed on the importance of the effort and were able to come to consensus to release the reports.

[Q]:   Please share one or two important papers that you suggest all SIGCAS members should read. What is the significance of these papers?

[A]:   Not to sound self-serving, but I do think that the ImpactCS papers are still valuable reading for CS faculty members. The first one provides the conceptual framework, the second one defines the knowledge units, and the third one discusses the importance of integrating these topics across the curriculum. They can still be found at the ImpactCS website:

[Q2]: What are some of the most pressing social and professional issues on the horizon? Why?

[A]:   I continue to worry about how to impress the importance of professional ethics and responsible behavior on our students. With the newspapers full of financial meltdown caused by greed and tax cheaters being confirmed to high government office, it becomes a hard sell. The other issue is the continuing erosion of personal privacy, often by choice, on the Internet and due to security concerns. It is one that we need to watch and continue to write about.

[Q4]: What advice or words of encouragement would you give to up and coming scholars?

[A]:   Social impact issues related to computer technology and the Internet are very important and are now recognized as legitimate scholarly issues for computer scientists. It is now okay to focus your research on privacy or identity or virtual reality social impact issues.

[Q]: What are your current projects?

[A]:   I am currently an administrator, the Associate Vice President for Graduate Studies and Academic Affairs, at GWU, so unfortunately, I don't have a lot of time for research and writing. My doctoral students are focusing in the area of Internet security and Internet policy. I do teach an Information Policy Course at the graduate level and continue to teach the undergraduate course that deals with professional ethics.

[Q5]: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

[A]:   It is important that we spark the interest of undergraduate computer science students in the ethics and social impact issues early in their studies. My experience has shown that if they are exposed to these issues, they don't forget them, and in fact, they start to see how they play out in the press on a weekly basis. It actually adds depth to their technical education and makes it more meaningful.

Keith Miller:  Outstanding Service 2006

Kathrine Andrews Henderson, Computers & Society editor

Office of the Auditor General, State of Arizona

Earlier this spring, I conducted a “virtual interview” with my friend and colleague Keith Miller. We passed the writing token (as Keith calls the passing of drafts back and forth between writers) a couple of times and our conversation went something like this:

[Q1]: Looking back, what was it that first sparked your interest in computer/information ethics?

[A]:   My technical specialty is software testing. As I worked on problems in that field, I kept bumping up to questions that my reliability statistical formulae couldn’t answer. The prime example of such a question was "How good is good enough?" My wife's Ph.D. is in bio-ethics, and I come from a religious family, so it was natural for me to look to ethics for some answers. Soon, I heard about Deborah Johnson's book. I contacted her, and became a "disciple" of hers. Many, many people in philosophy, computing, law, and psychology have been helping me ever since including Don Gotterbarn, Jim Moor, Fran Grodzinsky, Marty Wolf, Cem Kaner, Simon Rogerson, Terry Bynum, Flo Appel, Laurie King, Tracy Camp, Chuck Huff, and so many more.

[Q2]: What in your opinion, what is/are the most pressing issues in our field today? Why?

[A]:   I think that "How Good is Good Enough?" is still an open and important question, but I am sure that others would see that as a less pressing issue. The ethical status of increasingly autonomous and "intelligent" programs and robots is a central issue, and it is certainly getting lots of press. Inherent in that issue is a challenge to the special status of humans as the most important information processing species. I think privacy is a pressing problem, although younger people seem less concerned about that than us oldsters.

[Q3]:  Where do you see the field in the future? And,…

[Q]:    Specifically for SIGCAS, where do you see the SIG in the next 10 years?

[A]:    I would like to see rank and file computing professionals (both in the ACM and the IEEE, as well as practitioners who don't belong to either of those professional organizations) become more actively engaged in debates about these issues. I would like to see SIGCAS leading the charge in encouraging that kind of participation. In 10 years, wouldn't it be great if SIGCAS were the most popular "second choice" among all ACM SIGs? I think that is a worthy goal.

[Q4]:  What advice or words of encouragement would you give to up and coming scholars?

[A]:   I would give them the same advice I give my computer science students: as much as possible, be interdisciplinary; plant your feet firmly in TWO technical areas. For me the two areas are software testing and computer ethics. For someone else it might be professional ethics and databases. Take care not to become diluted, but instead try to exploit the strengths of each discipline in understanding the other discipline. There are many emerging new issues, and plenty of old issues that remain open; this is frightening for society, but wonderful for an up and coming scholar.

[Q5]:  Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

[A]:    I hope the readers involved in SIGCAS and in "computers and society" issues in general realize how lucky we are. The people I have met in SIGCAS, in IEEE SSIT, in INSEIT and in this field generally tend to be generous, gracious, and smart. More than software testing and more than computer science education (two fields where I also have contacts), people have been supportive and helpful to me in computer ethics. It makes me happy to work among and with these lively, charming people. [including you, Kat!]

Jim Moor: Making A Difference 2003

John Sullins, Computers & Society editor

Sonoma State University

[Q1]: Looking back, what was it that first sparked your interest in computer/information ethics?

[A]:   I came to appreciate the practical impact of computer ethics in the early 70's when I was doing logic programming for student applications. As a programmer I realized that I could "observe" and record what students were doing on the computer (there was only one mainframe computer in a time-sharing mode) without them knowing it. At that time I requested that Dartmouth require a privacy warning so that users would be notified when programs were saving information about their activities. The College complied and this was the beginning of the first detailed code of computer ethics at Dartmouth.

[Q2]: In your opinion, what is/are the most pressing issues in our field today?  Why?

[A]:   Broadly speaking, matters of privacy and control. These, of course, are perennial issues that always need scrutiny. With the coming of cloud computing, for example, users will have less control over private information and hence over their lives. The state and corporations that control the cloud will have enormous power. We need to find effective means of regulating such power. To put it in stark terms, what could a future Hitler achieve if he controlled the cloud?

[Q3]: Where do you see the field in the future?

[A]:    Just to take one aspect of the control issue how will military computers and robots be controlled? Because of the need for quick reactions on the battlefield computers and robots will be doing more and more of the decision-making. We need to continually evaluate the competence of such devices to make these decisions. Once again enormous power is concentrated and the need to be sure the right decisions are made is vital.

[Q4]: What advice or words of encouragement would you give to up and coming scholars?

[A]:   The computer revolution is far from over and the field of computer and information ethics is only beginning. This is a growth area with a research and teaching potential of doing tremendous good.

[Q5]: Is there a question I should have asked you but failed to?

[A]:   No.

[Q]: What are you reading right now that relates to computer/information ethics?

[A]: I am reading more about transhumanism and future super intelligent machines.

[Q]: What topic are you working on right now?

[A]:  Ethics and AI.

[Q]: What is happening now in the world of computer/information ethics that did not see coming when you started researching this topic?

[A]: Many things in computing I didn't see coming. One is that computers could be implanted in us. Computers filled entire rooms when I started programming by punch cards that were processed in batch mode overnight. The possibility that that arrangement could be miniaturized into real time medical devices and implanted inside humans never entered my mind. Today computerized implants are commonplace and will only become more so. I tell students that they were born humans but they will die cyborgs. I believe their lives will be longer and much improved because of it. But I worry that they will eventually become targets of hacking and neural implants may eventually cost them their freedom. This shows that computer ethics is more important than ever.

Simon Rogerson:  Making A Difference 2005

Ken Himma, Computers & Society editor

Seattle Pacific University

[Q1]: Looking back, what was it that first sparked your interest in computer/information ethics?

[A]:   Having spent many years in industry working on systems development in a variety of programming, analysis and project management roles I had my usual set of battle scars and medals borne out of trying to get systems to work and produce useful output for client departments. When I changed careers I was first employed as a senior lecturer and my role was to instill a sense of IT reality in final year Computer Science undergraduates and Masters level postgraduates. The problem of addressing system success and failure was high on my agenda as I had experienced little of the former and a lot of the latter in my time in industry, which was a typical profile for any IT professional at the time. By the early 1990s I became convinced that the problem was that IT people were looking at system development with a very narrow perspective. What was needed was a much broader scope. It was then I discovered some of the work being done in computer ethics. Like many of us working in this field it was Deborah Johnson’s writings that I first discovered and started to use. I found it fascinating that here was I very much a practical IT professional looking outwards for solutions and that there were several academics, primarily from philosophy, looking inwards to try to explain the phenomena they observed. I was hooked!

[Q2]: In your opinion, what is/are the most pressing issues in our field today?  Why?

[A]:   Converging technologies continue to change the world we live and work in. The impact across the world grows but still only around 20% of the global population use information and communication technology (ICT). The disparity of opportunity to benefit from ICT between poor and rich, under-developed and developed, and rural and urban remains and in some cases has increased. Associated with this are the power structures that have been created with advancing ICT. Those who own and/or control ICT infrastructure, media outlets and application systems wield much power in the modern world. It is they who decide whether ICT is good for us, what are the ICT priorities and when it is time to cease non-ICT products and services. For these reasons we need to assess new technological advances, for example cloud computing, implants and non human agents, as well as existing ICT usage. We need to ensure those working in ICT understand and accept all their professional obligations and responsibilities and provide them with the instruments to do so. Our work in the field must be accessible to policy makers, industry, educators and the public for it is too important to remain in the dusty corridors of academia.

[Q3]: Where do you see the field in the future?

[A]:   We must never forget that ICT is a practical domain and whilst it is important to address issues with rigor we must never see it as simply a vehicle for exercising and exhibiting our intellectual cleverness. I remain convinced that whilst exploration of the conceptual foundations are essential this must always be done with the understanding that it will help to ensure that the development and use of advancing information and communication technologies benefits us all and does no harm. There continues to be differing opinions about the nature of the field on a continuum from a philosophical-only position to a wide interdisciplinary position. For me the issue is quite simple – we live in an interdisciplinary world, we use resources in an interdisciplinary way and we face issues, challenges and problems that require us to draw upon our interdisciplinary skills and experiences. ICT is just part of our world and as such demands to be treated in an interdisciplinary way. So the field must be interdisciplinary – it is this that has coloured the way in which we have operated the ETHICOMP conference series since 1995. Through ETHICOMP new interdisciplinary partnerships have evolved. In Europe, research funding has recognized the need for interdisciplinarity and practicality. More emphasis is being placed on funding ethics-oriented ICT projects but only when the approach is interdisciplinary and applied.

[Q4]: What advice or words of encouragement would you give to up and coming scholars?

[A]:   For the foreseeable future ICT will remain at the forefront of human advances. Its pervasiveness is breathtaking. It is an amazingly stimulating and challenging area to work. It is particularly so for those of us focusing on the ethical and social impact of ICT. It requires us to be open-minded in our pursuit of answers drawing upon any existing relevant knowledge regardless of source. One of the greatest joys for me has been the engagement with scholars from many different disciplines, countries and cultures who have come together in a supportive way with one simple goal to make ICT better. We need young scholars to take up the mantle of pioneers in the field and take us forward. Whichever discipline you come from there is a place in this field for you if you are willing to adapt and to work in partnership with those from other disciplines. Our community encourages young scholars to engage and lead – it is really true that if you are good enough you are old enough.

[Q5]: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

[A]:   I have just come back from delivering the Social Impact of Computing Summer School for masters computing students at Gdansk University of Technology in Poland. All these students worked fulltime in the industry. This is the first time they had been exposed to the broader issues surrounding ICT. At the end of the course I asked them what they had learnt and would take back to their work. Many of them told me that they had never thought about how what they did in ICT might harm people or the environment but from now on they would. For me this is why our field is important, this is why we must engage in the delivery of education, this is why we must continue to lobby and this is why we need new scholars to join the field.

Ben Shneiderman:  Making A Difference 2001

Camille Dickson-Deane, Computers & Society editor

University of Missouri-Columbia

[Q1]: Looking back, what was it that first sparked your interest in HCI?

[A]:   My background was in traditional computer science, technically oriented but I always had a very eclectic outlook on life.  My parents were journalists and my sister an English professor, so the human condition was very much part of my outlook; it was natural in the early days of programming to take a look at the designs of programs to see that they would become readable and comprehensible. The use of meaningful variable names, good layout, modular design, clear comments were all issues that intrigued me. When I was an early graduate student I worked with my dear friend Charles Kreitzberg to write a book called The Elements of Fortran Style which tried to capture these recommendations for making comprehensible and therefore debuggable and maintainable programs.  That work naturally led me down the path to say, “Were the recommendations that we were making legitimate?”, so the idea of running controlled experiments naturally ensued. Of course, we had to refine and transform traditional experimental psychology methods to fit this emerging new domain and that became an early challenge.  I got guidance from an excellent psychologist named Richard Mayer who remains a professor at UC at Santa Barbara.  So that early work focused on programmers as users, but by the 1980’s when interactive personal computers became available, it was natural to focus on that topic.  The book I wrote in 1980 called Software Psychology was seen as a very strange idea by many people, but the publisher took it hoping to sell a few books.  It became the selected book from the two Computer Science book-of-the-month clubs and suddenly there was an increased interest in this topic.  By 1982, several of us organized a conference near Washington, DC on Human Factors in Computing Systems, hoping to draw 200 or 300 people.  We were delighted that 906 people turned up, which signaled that there was a great interest in psychologically-oriented studies of programmers and computer users. By the following year the SIGCHI group was formed and so the idea of research topics on user interfaces, human-computer interaction and human factors, became institutionalized in a wonderful way.  The conference that we started continues as an annual event, drawing up to 3000 attendees.  It’s a great satisfaction to see the growth of a strong academic discipline, but it’s still a struggle every day to promote these ideas in technical communities. Catherine Plaisant and I just published the 5th edition of Designing the User Interface; which tries to tell the story about this growing field with strong academic and professional interest.

[Q2]: In your opinion, what is/are the most pressing issues in our field today?  Why?

[A]:   Any success like this generates many challenges and interesting problems.  The transformation from a focus on a narrow group of professionals such as programmers, air traffic controllers or medical specialists, to dealing with a broad community of four (4) billion users of cell-phones and mobile devices is an indication of our huge success. Now we have to deal with the vast set of problems bought by this diverse set of users.  I’ve been an advocate of universal usability, which goes beyond mere accessibility; how do we build devices for novices and experts, for young and old, for low and high bandwidth networks, for small and large screens, or for people who speak different languages.  There are many challenges that will keep us busy for decades to come.  An important challenge is understanding how to transform the tantalizing successes in social media into more durable successes for important national priorities.  It is great that we have YouTube. I consider it a user interface success story – tools for creating and disseminating videos have made Youtube the 3rd  busiest website in the world - a remarkable transformation in just a few years.   Other remarkable sites such as Facebook and Wikipedia also show that with good user interface design that serves important human needs, entrepreneurs can create huge communities of users. The question I’m asking most these days is: How to deal with important human concerns such as disaster response, community safety, healthcare delivery, energy sustainability and environmental protection?  It seems to me we have a remarkable opportunity to apply these chain reactions of human collaboration to important national and international priorities.  I’ve tried to make issues such as United Nations Millennium Development Goals part of our educational space in Computer Science.  I hope computer scientists would play a role in these important international challenges.

[Q3]: Where do you see SIGCAS in the next 10 years?

[A]:   I’ve always been very proud to be part of the SIGCAS community and I appreciate the efforts of many in that community to focus on ethical issues, responsibility, and social questions.  I hope that the group would grow and become more vigorously engaged.  I would like to see SIGCAS become more than a group of academic researchers who discuss and study issues, I’d like to see them become an activist group in much the same way the ACM’s Public Policy group has become engaged in political decision making.  SIGCAS could be influential in a very profound way by its member’s efforts to expand from academic study to a position of responsible scientific activism.

[Q4]: What advice or words of encouragement would you give to up and coming scholars?

[A]:   I welcome, cherish and value every student who has an outlook which includes a focus on technology and its social impact.  We need many, many students who think deeply about how technology design shapes human values.  The SIGCAS community can have an enormous impact for students to move beyond just studying something, their aspiration should be to make interventions that change the world.  I would love to give a grade to my students, for the amount of social benefit that they produce during the semester.  My students all work on projects, both undergraduates and graduates, in which they have a user community.  My students test their progress on their users, with the goal of bringing benefit to people outside of the classroom and having their software survive beyond the semester.  The software tools are remarkable and professors who raise their expectations for what students can accomplish will enrich their educational experiences.

[Q5]:  Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

[A]:    Information and communications are potent technologies; they have their good and bad sides.  Researchers can influence the evolution of these technologies, if they conduct good strong science that gives designers and entrepreneurs an understanding of what works and what does not work.  Rigorous, scientific methods, applied to these emerging technologies with a focus on delivering societal benefits and promoting personal responsibility.  When journalists ask me “What are the next killer apps (applications)?”  I reply, “Trust, empathy, responsibility and privacy”.  Understanding how to design for these goals will shape future technologies.

Eugene Spafford:  Making A Difference 2004

Camille Dickson-Deane, Computers & Society editor

University of Missouri-Columbia

[Q1]: Looking back, what was it that first sparked your interest in computer/information ethics?

[A]:    I really do not remember.   I think it was when I was working on a project related to my PhD, and someone mentioned to me that I should be careful about what I claimed for my work (on fault-tolerance and security) because someone else might be building something on top of it that could be life-sustaining.   I got to thinking about the responsibility incumbent on me, as a software designer, to do the right things in design and testing, and in being really accurate in what I presented.   Then, as I looked around at what others were doing, I realized that too few people really understood the downstream consequences of what they did with computers. It became an important part of my worldview thereafter.

[Q2]: In your opinion, what is/are the most pressing issues in our field today?  Why?

[A]:   I think the whole attitude of "Get it working on time and within budget" is at the heart of many problems.  Instead of looking deeper into issues, and instead of building things to last, people address point problems with "just enough" solutions. The result is that later on, the systems fail in unanticipated ways.

We know how to build stronger, safer, more resilient systems than we do now, but don't because of schedule and cost.   We do point engineering rather than looking for underlying principles.   As a field, we are failing to take into account issues of risk and misuse that should be fundamental to engineering and science.

[Q3]: Where do you see the field in the future?

[A]:   I'm not really sure.  There are so many variables involved, it is difficult to predict. One path has computing being a government regulated field because of a lack of due care.   We're already seeing that, with some legislation before Congress requiring certifications vetted by government to work in critical positions.   The international dynamics are also interesting and add some new dimensions.   Wherever we end up, I'm sure there will continue to be hard questions to answer!

[Q4]: What advice or words of encouragement would you give to up and coming scholars?

[A]:   Pursue answers that address more than the questions that caused you to seek them. That is, seek larger answers and more fundamental truths.  Think about the application of your ideas to larger domains over longer time than what is needed. When you are successful in doing that, you help change the world beyond the perspective of your own problem set.

[Q5]: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

[A]:   SIGCAS is part of the "conscience" of computing.  Others may seek to make systems faster, or more distributed, or cheaper.  Others may look at ways of computers recognizing human language, or acting independently, or handling inconceivable amounts of data.  Those goals and more stem from one of the fundamental questions of computing research -- "What may be computed, and how?"   But there are related questions that should be asked, too: "What are the side-effects of computing those things?" and "What should be computed?"   SIGCAS is an avenue for asking those questions, and for promulgating the answers.


Herman Tavani:   Outstanding Service 2008

Kathrine Andrews Henderson, Computers & Society editor

Office of the Auditor General, State of Arizona

[Note. Katherine Henderson interviewed Herman Tavani for the September 2008 issue of Computers & Society. We chose to reprint that interview here rather than re-interview Dr. Tavani a short year later. Ed.]

I sat down with SIGCAS 2008 Outstanding Service Award recipient, Dr. Herman Tavani a few weeks ago to chat about his long-standing relationship with SIGCAS. Our conversation started out with a simple question, how long have you been a member? Answer, 14 years. And with that, the stories, the friendships, and his hopes for SIGCAS started flowing. ---KAH


To get things started, Herman explained how he discovered and subsequently became involved with SIGCAS. He spotted an issue of Computers and Society in a corporate library and the content drew him in. There were debates about property, privacy and questions about who ought to teach computer ethics. There was attention paid to important topics such as professional ethics, especially by Don Gotterbarn, as well as a place for Richard Epstein’s futuristic scenarios, and there was a very interesting AI (Artificial intelligence) Watch column. In Herman’s view, these concepts and concerns were exactly the kinds of things that were critical to developing courses in computer ethics. Which as it turns out was precisely what Herman was doing at the time he discovered the SIGCAS Newsletter. Herman is quite passionate about the early days. His respect for past presidents Dianne Martin and Tom Jewett, advocates who worked to increasing recognition and awareness of social impact issues within the society, was evident and inspiring. Tackling this question from a different angle, Herman noted that he was a philosopher and not a computer scientist. He and several others from the early days, including social scientists and philosophers such as Chuck Huff, Deborah Johnson and Jim Moor were not the kind of people who would be inclined to join the ACM and simply “check off” boxes on the membership form, indicating their various interests in the numerous ACM Special Interest Groups (SIGs). They were purposeful in selecting ACM because of its quarterly publication Computers and Society.

The next question posed, “how has SIGCAS served your professional work?” Words flew quickly here—community, interaction, friends, key players and relationships, collegiality, and collaboration. Then the list of friends and colleagues with whom Herman had worked came: Bruce Jawer, Diane Martin, Chuck Huff, Tom Jewett, Richard Epstein, Keith Miller, and Don Gotterbarn to name just a few. Herman states that, “SIGCAS is/was a wonderful resource for two reasons.

  1. The people (like those just mentioned) were influential in the early development of computer ethics courses.
  2. The columns and articles were resources to draw from for teaching.”

Herman is a member of several organizations, INSEIT, CPSR, IEEE-SSIT (Society for Social Implications of Technology), American Philosophical Association, and the Northern New England Philosophical Association. When asked about the similarities between these and SIGCAS, he said that the first four he mentioned are all interdisciplinary whereas the other two are philosophical; but all have computer-related components/aspects, so there is some synergy. One notable difference for SIGCAS is the strong emphasis on teaching computer ethics and on examining the social impact for the computer profession. Herman also pointed out that the ACM and IEEE have a joint code of ethics, the IEEE-CS/ACM Code of Ethics.

When asked how he finds the time to contribute so much to the computer ethics field, Herman, provided an answer and some good advice for others, “There are people who are just incredible in their service—SIGCAS chairs, etc. Their service is amazing. There are also many outstanding scholars who may not find the time required. I have tried to strike a balance.” Herman pointed out the importance of institutional support and praised two of his role models, Jim Moor and Deborah Johnson. He also took time to point out that there is sacrifice too—giving up hobbies and other leisure activities. The gem to take away from this answer is Herman’s call to be passionate, to make time, and to say, “YES” when invited to do something. He offered specific advice to new scholars too—likeminded societies such as SIGCAS are excellent places for young people to make a niche, connect and have sense of belonging. Their contributions to societies like SIGCAS, in turn, can help them to be recognized at their home institutions. And, this is a win-win for those who have the beliefs that we do and it is fulfilling to be appreciated and recognized.

To wrap things up, Herman shared his thoughts on what SIGCAS needs to do in the near future to become/remain vibrant/important/valuable. Herman said that it is hard to step back (to see things from a different perspective) when you are ensconced. He began his answer with a lovely compliment. He is excited about the energy he sees others bringing to the field. He gave Elizabeth Buchanan (my friend and colleague from University of Wisconsin) and me as an example for our work with INSEIT. From here the conversation became more reflective with a bit of sadness at times, but ended with Herman’s usual joy and enthusiasm for the people and the work they are doing.

“Looking back the organization floundered a bit when the hardcopy edition of Computers & Society ended in 2002. Many SIGCAS members were let down. The SIGCAS website became erratic during that period as well. By then, Computers and Society was the leading periodical and covered a different mix of issues, but it was not the only show in town. Several publications on related topics and issues had also emerged. There has also been an ongoing problem with what some believe to be the marginalization of SIGCAS in the ACM —Dianne (Martin) referred to SIGCAS as the “Conscience of the ACM” and was instrumental in bringing social impact studies involving computers to the attention of ACM. After she and Tom Jewett completed their respective terms as Chair, some problems began to surface. For a period of time, ACM seemed not to pay as much attention as it should have to some key concerns addressed by SIGCAS. Herman believes that strong leaders, like Dianne, Tom Jewett, and now Flo Appel, will continue to fight the good fight. In the same way that philosophy courses always seem to be on the “chopping block” when it comes to curriculum revision and funding cutbacks, small SIGs are especially vulnerable to eradication when they are viewed in terms of the proportionately little money that comes in, etc. It is important though to look at the function that SIGCAS has continued to play for nearly 40 years now in the ACM community at large. Herman credits Flo (Appel) for SIGCAS’s recent resurgence. “She has invited the right people to the table. Having a catalog of back issues, enhancing the website and getting things running smoothly were exactly the right moves. Thanks to Flo, SIGCAS is on the right track.” Herman encourages our SIG to have a broader reach. The last issue of Computers & Society had this kind of reach—more issues like this will help both the Newsletter and the group flourish!

Jim Thatcher: Making A Difference 2008

Matt North

Washington & Jefferson College


[Note. Matthew North interviewed Jim Thatcher for the September 2008 issue of Computers & Society. We chose to reprint that interview here rather than re-interview Dr. Thatcher a short year later. Ed.]


On March 28, 2008, the Association for Computer Machinery’s Special Interest Group for Computers and Society (ACM SIGCAS) conferred the 2008 Making a Difference Award on Dr. Jim Thatcher. Dr. Thatcher’s work in the area of assistive technologies has spanned four decades, and has enabled many blind and visually impaired individuals throughout the world to expand their use of computers in their daily lives. This summer, I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Thatcher about his extraordinary career and this acknowledgement he has received from the ACM. --- MN


Q: Congratulations on having won the 2008 Making a Difference Award. Can you share with us a bit about your thoughts and reactions when you were notified of the award?

A: I was delighted and very surprised. I am a really long time member of the ACM; I think I may have joined in 1959. It was my first or second year in graduate school. There was SIGALT, or something like that back then, for automaton language theory; that was my main special interest group at the time. And this is so totally different than my initial area of interest, which was theoretical computer science. So this is different, and really nice.

Q: You received this award because of your work on screen readers and other assistive technologies for blind and visually impaired people. How did you originally get involved in that work specifically?

A: My thesis advisor, and this is going back again, to 1959 or 60, was named Jesse Wright. He was a research mathematician at the University of Michigan. He and I actually left Michigan at the same time to go to the mathematical sciences department at IBM, and he is blind. He and I did theoretical computer science there [at IBM] for about 20 years, and about 1978 we got to have a talking terminal in our department. It was called SAID, which stands for Synthetic Audio Interface Driver. In effect, it was basically the first screen-reader, because it did read the ASCII values in a stream and speak them through a monster vocal track synthesizer—it was the size of a suitcase. It cost $10,000 and it ended up becoming our main product. We got SAID in 1978 and then the PC, as you know, came out in the early 1980s, and we were just having fun with making a PC version of the talking terminal. Our idea was that it would be a lot cheaper and easier to use. We called our prototype PC-SAID. The marketing people down in Boca Raton were the ones who wanted to call it Screen Reader, which I thought was really silly. It ended up being named IBM Screen Reader, which became the recognized brand name—like Kleenex or Xerox—so I guess the marketing people kind of knew what they were doing in naming it.

Q: The Workforce Rehabilitation and Accessibility Act was passed in 1973, and your work with screen readers began within five years of that, so when people refer to you as a pioneer, it’s a pretty accurate assessment, isn’t it?

A: I guess that’s true. You know, the original Workforce Rehabilitation Act didn’t actually even have section 508, which is today synonymous with accessibility. That was added as an amendment later, so it corresponded even closer to when our work with screen readers began.

Q: What other changes have you seen over the course of your career, with the law or with the technology that has affected what you’ve done?

A: Well, other than the amendment to add section 508, I can’t think of too many significant changes with the law that affected my work, but there’s something that I can mention about the way screen reading is done. At that time, Screen Reader was really a pretty good name, because the software actually looked at the bytes that represented the letters on the screen, and so it was all done right there, on the screen. That was stage one in screen reading. Stage two began when the graphical user interface came out, both on Windows and IBM O/S2. That was a totally different situation, because we didn’t have that text there anymore, only pixels, so what we built were called off-screen models. They were based on calls to the operating system to draw text on the screen—that was a very difficult process because the quality of the screen reading was directly related to the quality of the models. But we eventually got them to where they worked pretty well.

Q:    How has the increase in computing speed and performance, accompanied by a decrease in technology costs, affected the work you do in this area?

A:    Well, much of what we’ve done all along didn’t really depend on faster or smaller computers. In other words, I’d have done what I have whether computers got smaller, cheaper and faster or not. I’ve already mentioned how the graphical user interface changed what we were doing, and other devices, especially portable devices, have influenced screen reader technology as well, but as I said, the nature of my work hasn’t been dramatically influenced by the changes in technology over time—we’d have done it anyway.

Q:    Where do you see your work going next? What do you hope your legacy will be?

A:    That’s a hard question. When you think about legacy, it’s about how you’ll be remembered. I guess I want our work to continue so there will be more opportunities for people to accomplish things they couldn’t before. You know, when you’re visually impaired, there’s a limitation there, and I’d like to know that technology built on what we’ve been doing for so many years will continue to enable people to overcome challenges caused by blindness or other visual impairment.

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