Outstanding Service Award (2008) — Herman Tavani (Interview)

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!