Computer ethics (SIPP) notes relevant to South Africa

Social issues and Professional Practice in IT & Computing (formerly known as ‘computer ethics’ in our curriculum) increased in prominence in curriculum guidelines in recent years. Also, there is an increase in popular and scientific literature on computer ethics especially since Big Data, the popularisation of Artificial Intelligence, and now the 4th Industrial Revolution. Most of the articles and books are focussed on ethical and social issues where SIPP is taught mostly, being in ‘the West’.

It is taught elsewhere as well. For instance, since the early 2000s, the Computer Science Department at the University of Cape Town has taught it as part of a Masters in IT conversion course and as a block in a first-year computer science course. While initial material and lecture notes were reused from one of those universities in ‘the West’, over time, attempts have been made to localise it to some extent at least. For instance, South Africa has its own version of EU’s GDPR (the POPI Act), there is a South African IT organisation (IITPSA) with its code of conduct, and is the textbook case that illustrates the concept of leapfrogging with its wireless network (and perhaps also with the digital divide). In addition, some ‘aspects’ look different from a country that is classified as an emerging economy than for a high-income country; e.g., as patent protection and Silicon Valley’s data collection vs. potentially stifling emerging local tech companies and digital colonialism, respectively.

Updating lecture notes takes time, and so it is typically a multi-author effort carried out every few years, as it is in this case. Differently from the previous main update, is that, in line with teaching and with the times, the lecture notes are now publicly available for free on UCT’s “Open Educational Resources” site. It is with some hesitation, as it clearly does not have the quality of a textbook and we know of certain limitations that I would have liked to be better. Yet, I hope that it may be of some use already nonetheless, be it for people in the region or from ‘outside’ looking in.

I have contributed some sections as well, partially because I think it’s an interesting theme and partially because I have to teach it. I would have liked to add more, but time was running out (i.e., it’s a balancing act with other commitments, like research, teaching, and admin). With more time, the privacy chapter would have been updated better (e.g., also touching upon privacy in the context of the common practice of mobile phone sharing), emerging concepts would have been better integrated (e.g., digital colonialism, surveillance capitalism), some of the separate exercises could have been integrated, and so on and so forth. Alas, maybe a next time. (To any of my students reading this: some of these aspects are already integrated in the slides that are used in the CSC1016S lectures, which are running ahead in content compared to the written notes, and that is examinable content as well.)