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JILT 1998 (1) - Ruth Bagnall

Joseph Kizza's

Ethical and Social Issues in the Information Age

Springer-Verlag, 1997, £30.50
166pp, ISBN: 0-387-98275-2

Reviewed by
Ruth Bagnall
Chadwyck-Healey Ltd
ruth.bagnall@dial.pipex.com


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This is a Book Review published on 27 February 1998.

Citation:Bagnall R, 'Joseph Kizza's Ethical and Social Issues in the Information Age', Book Review, 1998 (1) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/bookrev/98_1bagn/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1998_1/bagnall/>


1. Introduction

Kizza's book is intended for undergraduate information technology and engineering students, with a wider potential interest for people concerned with the development of 'traditional' ethical and social issues in the information age.

The format of the book reflects its primary purpose, split into short chapters, each followed by a series of questions which both test comprehension of, and invite reflection on the key themes of the chapter. Few assumptions are made about students' familiarity with basic concepts in morality and current practices in law, but it is assumed that the reader is familiar with mathematical concepts and vocabulary, and indeed will find it easier to conceptualise ethical issues in mathematical, rather than conventional, discursive terms.

2. Ethical and Social Issues

Kizza begins his book with a quick contextual romp through the fields of morality, ethics and law (Chapters 1 and 2) before settling on his primary objective of educating society as a whole, and students of information technology in particular, in the impact and implications of the changing technological environment on issues of propriety, professionalism and intellectual property.

Undergraduate information technologists can look to Kizza for thumbnail sketches of professional standards (Chapter 3) and related issues of technological change in workplace practice (Chapter 6), and a 'Ready Reference' overview of intellectual property rights - copyright, patents, trade marks and trade secrets (Chapter 5). Legal means of redress against inferior computer products and services are described in Chapter 7.

I have some reservations about Kizza's interpretations of the impact of information technology on workplace practice. He is generally hostile to the use of information technology by 'management', with a view of management seemingly lifted straight from Scott Adams's Dilbert books, and discussing performance monitoring and 'surveillance' of the workforce in all but interchangeable terms. His hostility to this manifestation of 'office automation' is as strong as his conviction of the liberating potential of using information technology to work from home. And yet he presents the 'choice' to work from home as a key benefit for women (not 'parents', mind, nor 'carers'), 'if their primary objective for working from home is to take care of their families' (p93). Some liberation!

Such criticisms aside, however, thus far the book provides a useful and informative overview of ethical practice for the budding IT professional. Indeed, the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Code of Ethics is reproduced in full (pp18-26), and the book as a whole may in some senses be read as an amplification of this set of moral imperatives. (The further fact that almost 40 per cent of the references are to papers from the Communications of the ACM, however, make one wonder how much the book is a device for promoting this professional membership organisation... )

Nevertheless, not even the ACM has all the answers; and Kizza is keen not only to show the purpose and value of existing ethical and legal frameworks, but to reinforce the urgency of updating these frameworks to accommodate the influence of new technologies.

New technology increases the range of opportunities to fall into unethical behaviour - from shoddy software development to outright fraud - and Kizza exemplifies these dangers well. These same technologies also challenge current legal means to protect individual privacy and property in the information age.

Kizza's description of the 'new frontiers' of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality and Cyberspace (equated, for practical purposes, with the Internet) is fairly lean (Chapter 8), his description of the World Wide Web amounting to little more than the unpacking of some of the relevant acronyms and a hint at the new forms of 'community' (i.e. interest groups) which can be convened through the medium of the Internet more readily than through conventional communications media. His reflections (Chapter 9) on the ethical issues emerging from the use of these technologies range from the sceptical to the speculative and sensational. I share his concerns on issues of access to the Internet, where 'the affordability of cyberspace access follows very closely the lines of affluence in our society' (p143), reflecting, and likely to reinforce, existing inequalities in the distribution of income, wealth and opportunity. When speculating on unpalatable futures, we part company. Kizza elaborates a Shelleian vision of AI - the fear of a Frankenstein's monster, cleverer than we. My nightmares are in the Orwellian mode. Let me explain.

Of the 11 references cited in Chapter 1 of Kizza's book, nine are to sources on the World Wide Web. And of those, only two are still retrievable at the time of writing this review, less than two months after the book's publication. Such 'link-rot' is a common feature of the Web, where the average 'life' of a page is only 70 days. This is nothing, though, compared with the coverage of the UK General Elections in 1997, where constantly updated information was issued on the main TV channels' election Web sites, overwriting the previous statistics, opinions and analysis. However, unlike the videos we made of the TV broadcasts, there is no archive of the election Web sites, tracking the statements which were published on that night. It makes most of the Web a poor historical and scholarly resource, where materials cannot be reliably revisited, and it forces us to live in a continuous present tense, with an abundance of information but no reliable historical record.

Nightmares aside, the ambivalent position of the Web at the convergence point of publishing and broadcasting technologies also makes for difficulties in applying and enforcing current laws. Kizza is at his most persuasive in his campaign for a relevant ethical and legal framework when displaying the manifest inadequacies of existing legislation in the face of new technology. The very concept of software strains our current definitions of 'product' and 'service' and, hence, complicates our search for legal redress on grounds of liability, or negligence - or both ? (Chapter 7). At the most basic level, copyright protection is challenged by the very technology of the Web, where files are 'cached' locally, i.e. copied onto one's hard disk by the browser software, in order to be read. At the other extreme, the global span of the Internet makes a nonsense of territorial jurisdictions and the capacity of individual states to regulate the traffic of information beyond the 'new frontiers'. And just as copyright legislation grew out of an interest to protect the commercial value of published materials, so commercial interests are pulling forward ethical thinking on new technology, from threats to privacy where personal information has a commercial value never before realised (Chapter 4), to the drive for transnational standards for secure financial transactions over the Internet, on which Kizza concludes.

3. Conclusion

Kizza's book is broad in its coverage and, necessarily therefore, not one which tackles its subject in great depth. The author is better at description and categorisation than in analysis of the social and ethical issues he confronts. However, as a handbook and guide to professional ethical questions for the undergraduate IT student, the book fulfils its purpose rather well. But beware, its referencing of relevant laws and codes of ethics is strongly US-oriented. And while this serves to underline his appeal for a new, global framework for the regulation of transnational technological affairs, the non-US student or reader is left, for the moment, rather less well served.

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