Category: Technology and Society

The Technological Citizen, Year One: A Recap

World in handGreetings!

This post marks the end of the first year of The Technological Citizen, and the end of my Hackworth Fellowship at The Markkula Center for Ethics.  And what a year it has been!

Over the course of the past 9 months, I’ve written and featured 22 articles, on topics ranging from biotechnology to neuroscience to social networking to artificial intelligence.  These articles have amassed upwards of 650 thoughtful and interesting comments, and over the course of the year, approximately  150,000 people have visited the blog.

Throughout the year, posts from The Technological Citizen have been incorporated into the curriculum of fifteen courses at Santa Clara University in five different departments, including Social and Ethical Issues in Biotechnology (Biology Department); Science, Technology and Society (Philosophy Department); Technology and Communication (Communications Department); Science, Ethics, and Society (English Department), and Difficult Dialogues in Genetics and Medicine. Hundreds of students have responded to posts as part of their coursework, and students from the philosophy course Science, Technology and Society wrote “guest posts” as their final papers, from which the previous post on electronic recycling was selected.

Over the year, I’ve been able to connect with some amazing people in the fields of technology, ethics and beyond.  Contributing writers to the blog have included Paul Bloom, psychologist from Yale University;  Wendell Wallach, ethicist from Yale University; and Colin Allen, from Indiana University.  I’ve also been honored to feature articles by Dr. Lawrence Nelson, bioethicist from Santa Clara University, and Dr. Sean Hatt, psychologist from Santa Clara University’s Graduate School of Psychology.  I am so grateful, too, to Roger Holzberg from Methuselah Foundation for letting me interview him about the foundation’s work in life extension, and to Dr. Wallach and Dr. Allen for featuring my article on The Singularity on their blog, Moral Machines.


Living in the Silicon Valley has afforded me some excellent opportunities throughout the year as well: I’ve attended lectures by Jonathan Zittrain from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society; Dr. William Hurlbut from Stanford’s Neuroscience Institute on ethical issues raised by biotechnology; Dr. Hank Greely, Dr. David Magnus, and Dr. Christine Wijman at The Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford on fMRI technology and Vegitative States; and blogger and writer Jonah Lehrer on neuroscience and decision making.

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The Power of Social Technology at Stanford Business School

Social NetworkTake a second and consider: out of all the articles, videos, and blog posts you see in a week, which ones do you breeze through and forget, and which ones stick with you?

Which ones do you forward onto your friends, and which ones do you relegate to internet oblivion?

Out of the requests you get on Facebook to support a cause or become a “fan,” to the e-mails you get from Barack Obama to watch a short video about healthcare reform, to a link someone sends you to donate to their charity, how many of them do you take the time to engage with deeply, and how many go, in one eye, so to speak, and out the other?

Most of us are inundated with requests online to take notice of social causes: to “Save Darfur” or to “Campaign for Cancer Awareness”.  And yet many of us glaze over and ignore them; or perhaps we join a group but end up taking no real action towards the cause. Indeed, for anyone who has ever created a YouTube video, written a blog, or tried to get someone to join their cause on Facebook, you likely know that simply sending out a request doesn’t always lead to action.

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An Ethical Look At Cognitive Stimulants, Part 1

adderallIS“Every era has its own defining drug.” – Margaret Talbot

With the high availability of so-called “cognitive enhancing drugs” like Ritalin, Adderall, and Provigil on college campuses, students everywhere are facing the choice of whether or not to take non-prescribed medications to help them “perform better” in school. Studies show that anywhere between 20-35% of college students have used one of these medications without a prescription in their college career, but an informal survey would likely reveal an even higher percentage, as the use of these medications is on the rise.  Many claim these drugs help them concentrate, study longer, and juggle more tasks by creating more productive hours in the day.  Others rely on them in a crunch, during midterms, finals, or the night before a big test, when the clock is ticking and assignments are due, and there doesn’t seem to be enough time –or brain power–to get everything that needs to get done, done.

The question of whether to use these “cognitive enhancing drugs” poses many ethical concerns– some rooted in the very immediate and direct impact of these drugs on the developing brains of young people, and some rooted more in what these drugs say philosophically about the direction our society is headed in.  And with the rate of use tripling within the past ten years, along with the fact that dozens of new cognitive stimulants are currently in the pharmaceutical pipeline, it seems an important issue to examine.  Should we embrace the use of these drugs, in hopes of them making us smarter, more efficient, and more productive?  Or should we be wary of using them, concerned with the risks that they pose not only to our brains, but to our own personal and societal values?

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An Ethical Look At Cognitive Stimulants, Part 2, Guest Post by Dr. Sean Hatt

Prescription PillsWho decides what’s right, what is socially appropriate, and what is societally acceptable when it comes to the use of things that alter your brain function?

It’s interesting to consider how we decide what the rules are about which drugs are deemed socially acceptable and which ones are not.  We condone (not only condone, but actively rely on) certain substances like caffeine, guzzling down cups of coffee and cans of Red Bull without a second thought about their “ethical implications.”  We condemn marijuana as illegal but allow a much more dangerous drug – alcohol – to be consumed at will after the age of 21.  We think it’s permissible to use coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes to pull an all nighter to complete work but would gape at someone snorting a line of cocaine for the same reason.  How are these lines we draw–the ones that call a certain brain-altering substance taboo and another one completely embraceable– determined?  Do they involve a careful assessment of their effects on the brain?   A standardized measure of risks?  Do they come from some subjective evaluation grandfathered in by socially determined forces?

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“Moral Machines” By Wendell Wallach and Collin Allen

The face of a robot woman.

In the 2004 film I, Robot, Will Smith’s character Detective Spooner harbors a deep grudge for all things technological — and turns out to be justified after a new generation of robots engage in a full out, summer blockbuster-style revolt against their human creators.

Why was Detective Spooner such a Luddite–even before the Robots’ vicious revolt?  Much of his resentment stems from a car accident he endured in which a robot saved his life instead of a little girl’s.  The robot’s decision haunts Smith’s character throughout the movie; he feels the decision lacked emotion, and what one might call ‘humanity’.

I was the logical choice,” he says. “(The robot) calculated that I had a 45% chance of survival.  Sarah only had an 11% chance.”  He continues, dramatically, “But that was somebody’s baby.  11% is more than enough.  A human being would’ve known that.”

But what, exactly, is it that the human being would’ve known?  And how would they have known it?

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Our Cell Phone Culture

cell phonesCan you remember life before cell phones?

A time when if you wanted to get in touch with someone, you had to leave a message, and (gasp!) wait until they returned home to call you back?

A time before digital contact lists, when you memorized your friend’s phone numbers?

A time when if you planned to meet someone at a specific time and they were late, you’d just have to hang around until they got there?

A time when you might have sat for a moment in silence, read a book without interruption, or chatted with someone nearby,  instead of constantly grabbing for your phone to send a text or check e-mail?

It’s hard to imagine, but just give it a try: can you remember life before you had a device with you, at all times, everywhere you go?

Today’s post is about the gadget that has wormed its way into the life of over 80% of American’s lives, and explores what it’s like to live in a world where quiet, un-connected moments are few and far between, increasingly replaced by the twitter of texts and cell phone chatter.  Guest poster SCU student Chris Kelly explores this everpresent issue in his article Smartphones Distract From Reality, writing that cell phones are “changing the way we think about free time.” Chris’s article, ahead.

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Jonathan Zittrain’s “Minds For Sale” and Ubiquitous Human Computing

Business man with computer screen for headStrapped for cash (or have some time to kill)?

Here’s a deal for you: If you can figure out how to control the bubble size in carbonated beverages, or can find a novel approach to protecting corn from insect damage, the website Innocentive will broker a deal where your idea could be purchased for $20,000.

Or maybe chemical compounds aren’t your thing? Head over to’s Mechanical Turk program, and make $1 for identifying in 100 pictures whether the person in the photo is male or female, or earn 5 cents for every city and country you match with the correct overseas zipcodes.

Still need more work? If you successfully pass the interview process at (also known as the “contact center in the cloud”), you could soon be a call-center employee taking someone’s drive thru order from the Jack-in-the-Box from across town, simply sitting at home on your couch connected to the drive-thru module via your laptop.

Each of these is an example of Ubiquitous Human Computing, a term coined by Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain used to describe the trend to network and distribute mindpower as a fungible resource on the web.

Last Week, Zittrain came to speak about this topic at Santa Clara University in his lecture entitled “Minds For Sale”, where he dynamically discussed the myriad of issues we are faced by this new wave of the internet.

Out of the many interesting topics Zittrain covered, a few ideas stood out to me:

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Media-Multitasking and ‘The Good Life’

Picture 4 02-12-30Be honest: how many other things are you doing right now?

Are you in the midst of responding to your e-mail, while casually browsing the web, scanning your friend’s most recent Facebook updates, chatting on Gchat, and mid-article on your favorite news site or blog?

Go ahead and count them: how many windows are open on your computer right now?

And what else are you doing? Are you listening to music, watching TV, or half-talking to a friend nearby? Is your cell phone within a hands reach, ready to be answered the instant you hear a text message or phone call? Or perhaps you’re even reading this on your cell phone, on your way in between classes or meetings, biding time while waiting for the next thing to require your attention?

No, this isn’t a post about Big Brother watching you; it’s about a term we all know too well: Multitasking. We have become, as writer Christine Rosen says, “mavens of multitasking,” glued to our technological gadgets, driven by our seemingly endless to-do lists of tasks. My post today asks, how have all the technologies we use – the cell phones, computers, PDAs, e-mails, and the like– accelerated the extent to which we multitask? And more importantly, what effect has it had on the way we live our lives? Read more »

Is It Ethical For Employers To Factor In Online Profiles in Hiring Decisions?

facebook_drunks What happens when the pictures and content you post online for friends to see is also viewed by a potential employer?

The question has become of particular importance in recent years, where photos, profiles, and online commentary are being factored into who gets hired–and fired–in the workforce.

Close to 50% of companies report doing background checks on their candidates by searching through online content, and claim to have not hired candidates based on finding “provocative photographs,” “content about drinking or using drugs,” or even “poor communication skills” demonstrated on their online profiles. For recent college students joining the workplace, this is particularly a problem, because they often have this type of “unprofessional” content on their profiles from their time in school.

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What Is The Internet’s Effect on Deep Reading?

iStock_000010264645XSmallHere’s a challenge: can you read this whole post without getting distracted?  Can you resist the urge to skim each paragraph for the “gist of it”, and instead read each sentence carefully, reflecting on its meaning, even thinking about how it might apply to your life?

Chances are this might take some work: if you are accustomed to reading on the web, you’ve likely also grown accustomed to the online reading style known as the “F-shaped pattern“, where when you open a webpage, you read in an F-shape quickly from left to right across the top, and then scan the middle until you get to the bottom, absorbing a few main ideas but not truly engaging with any of them.  It’s a quick and easy way to catch the major points, enabling you to get an overview of everything presented, perhaps giving you the sense of comprehension.  But as the research shows, it’s likely that you are absorbing very little.

And when you’re websurfing, reading for entertainment, or perusing blogs, maybe it doesn’t matter if you’re just skimming. But as the internet is increasingly the source for all our content – the news we read, the research we do for work and school, the entertainment we enjoy– we must ask the question: how is the internet changing the way we read, and the depth with which we take in information? What are the implications for society if the deep, reflective thinking associated with reading is replaced by the “web-page graze”?

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Technology and Society: Are You Overwhelmed By Gadgets?

Juggling GadgetsToday, it’s hard to find a person who isn’t glued to his or her Blackberry, iPhone, iPod, or other preferred technological gadget.  One recent study found that people spend an average of 8 hours staring at a screen each day.  But what effect is being “plugged in” having on the way we live our lives, and how we interact with each other?  What is the impact of being so wired into technology?

On The Technological Citizen, we will be exploring a variety of topics related to the impact that mainstream technologies have on our daily lives. How has the internet, e-mail, cell phones, and MP3 players impacted the way we spend our time?  The way we interact with other people? How might these technologies be reshaping our attention spans, our learning styles, and the overall way we think?  Have these technologies enhanced the human experience, or diminished it? 

Tune into the blog to read reflections on living in the technological age.

Welcome To The Technological Citizen!


The Technological Citizen is a forum to explore and exchange ideas about the issues that arise from modern technologies. A wide variety of topics will be explored, including the ethics of cognitive enhancement, genetic testing, and biotechnologies, as well as the way in which technology impacts our relationship with other people, the environment, and ourselves.

Postings will fall under five basic categories:

Technology and Society
Technology and The Environment
Ethical Issues in Health and Biotechnology
The Future of Technology

If you are interested in seeing all the posts on one particular topic, please click on that topic heading under “Categories”.

Thanks for checking out the blog! I look forward to hearing your ideas about these topics.

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