Computing, Ethics, & Society

Spring 2023

Computing, Ethics, & Society


Course CS 396/496 | LS 351/451: Computing, Ethics, and Society
Instructors Natalie Araujo Melo (Prof Natalie/any pronouns) & Victoria C. Chávez (Prof V/they/she)
Peer Mentors Jack Burkhardt (Jack/they/he); sahibzada mayed (mayed, any pronouns); Naomi Wu (Naomi/she/her)
Class Time Mondays and Wednesdays, 2:00pm - 3:20pm
Class Location Zoom (see Canvas for link)
Office Hours Wednesdays at noon (on class Zoom, with Prof V), Fridays at 1pm (on class Zoom, with Prof Natalie), By appointment with either/both of us (see Canvas)

Learning During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing and will present new, unexpected challenges to our class and to our community at Northwestern. We want to acknowledge that things are difficult for many of us on multiple fronts. Some thoughts:

  1. Your health and well-being is always top priority. Please communicate with us if you have something going on so that we can figure out a path forward together.
  2. There are numerous resources at Northwestern that are in place to support students with extenuating circumstances (e.g. CAPS, talking to your academic advisor, talking to the dean of students, etc.). We can help you navigate these paths if you need help.

Weekly Topics

Note that the schedule is dynamic and subject to change.

Week Topic Due
Week 1 03/28/23 Tue, 03/28 Course Introduction Journal 1
03/29/23 Wed, 03/29 Tech Ethics Journal 2
Week 2 04/03/23 Mon, 04/03 Do Artifacts Have Politics? Journal 3
04/05/23 Wed, 04/05 "Unintended Consequences" Journal 4
Week 3 04/10/23 Mon, 04/10 Intro to CRT Journal 5
04/12/23 Wed, 04/12 Racial Capitalism Journal 6
Week 4 04/17/23 Mon, 04/17 Race After Technology Journal 7
04/19/23 Wed, 04/19 Algorithms of Oppression Journal 8
Week 5 04/24/23 Mon, 04/24 Facial Recognition Journal 9
Week 6 05/01/23 Mon, 05/01 Data Capitalism Journal 10 Midterm
05/03/23 Wed, 05/03 Taking Back Control Journal 11
Week 7 05/08/23 Mon, 05/08 Land Relations Journal 12
05/10/23 Wed, 05/10 CS Extractions
Week 8 05/15/23 Mon, 05/15 Reimagining CS Education
05/17/23 Wed, 05/17 Reimagining the Internet Journal 13
Week 9 05/22/23 Mon, 05/22 Solutionism Journal 14
05/24/23 Wed, 05/24 Choose your own adventure Journal 15
Week 10 05/31/23 Wed, 05/31 Final Presentations
Week 11 06/07/23 Wed, 06/07 Final

About the Course

Why should we care about ethical questions with respect to technology?

Computing technologies shape our personal, social, and political lives in increasingly complex and consequential ways – providing tremendous benefits (e.g. convenient access to information, connecting to one another across time and space) and harms (e.g. biased decision-making, mass surveillance, disinformation campaigns, and exclusion from critical material opportunities) that are important to examine and understand.

At the same time, these technologies are born and shaped by the societies in which they are developed. Thus, grappling with the ethics of technologies (i.e considering the harms and benefits, how and why they were created in the first place, and how and to what ends they are used) is important not only for ultimately creating more moral technologies but a more moral society. Thus, our approach to the ethics of computing technologies requires a multifaceted assessment of their harm and benefit to our individual, cultural, and political lives, and simultaneously a critical examination of the values, ideologies, and contexts through which computing technologies emerge.

To accomplish this, we will engage in critical reading across a range of topics drawn from computer science and HCI, education and learning sciences, as well as ethics and philosophy. These readings and ideas will help us to:

  1. Recognize the value judgements and subjectivities that undergird a wide variety of technical practices (e.g. sampling, data collection practices, categorization and classification, prediction, system design, etc.).
  2. Examine the design choices and tradeoffs that various computing infrastructures make (and have made) in relation to important societal values (e.g. individual autonomy, free speech, equity, privacy, justice, security, access to opportunity, etc.).
  3. Consider some of the intended and unintended consequences of computing applications within our communities, institutions, and social systems (e.g. schooling, employment, policing, transportation, business, etc.). This involves paying attention to who wins and who loses, as well as how these technologies might amplify existing marginalities and privileges.
  4. Develop a variety of analytic lenses for examining computing technologies in terms of their social, ethical, and political consequences.

The course is open to all students. For CS majors, minors, and graduate students, the course aims to help students to consider and grapple with ethical dimensions of their work, in order to inform a more critical technical practice. For students coming into the class from other disciplinary vantage points, the course aims to provide a solid foundation for thinking about the possibilities, risks, and impacts of computer-mediated infrastructures on society.


This course was originally developed in collaboration with Dr. Sepehr Vakil, Dr. Sarah Van Wart, and Natalie Araujo Melo.

Course Format

The course format will consist of:

  1. Readings and in-class discussions.
  2. In-class activities to help students to consider the potential impacts of different kinds of technologies and design decisions.
  3. Reflective writing assignments that will ask you to analyze the social and ethical dimensions of contemporary technology debates.

Required Texts

All assigned readings will be available via Canvas as PDFs. We will be reading chapters from several different books (in Chronological Order):

  1. Benjamin, R. (2019). Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Crawford, Kate (2021). Atlas of AI. Yale University Press.
  3. Costanza-Chock, Sasha (2020). Design Justice. The MIT Press.
    • Open access (yay!)

Course Format & Grading

The course format will consist of:

  1. Participation (40%)
  2. Midterm (30%)
  3. Final project or paper (30%)

1. Participation (40%)

Your participation grade will be based on attendance, and on evidence that you are engaging with the readings (as shown through your in-class participation as well as through your Identity Journal entries).

Class Discussions

We will use classroom discussion as a form of collaborative sense-making to understand, critique, and interrogate the required course readings. Your timely and engaged attendance at every class is thus very important – both for you and for your classmates. Every student will need to participate in a thoughtful and productive manner in order for these discussions to be effective. Building on and reacting to other participants’ comments is encouraged, and should be done in a respectful tone even if you disagree. In order to participate fully, please do not let your laptop, phone, or other devices distract you or other participants.

Identity Journal

Each student will also create an “Identity Journal” that will be updated throughout the quarter, both during and outside of class. The Identity Journal will be a personalized space for you to keep track of how core themes of the class relate directly to your own lived experiences, identities, and perspectives. It will also serve as an artifact of your learning that will be useful to you beyond the class. You may skip one identity journal post without a grade penalty.

Attendance and Absence Policy

You are allowed two unexcused absences during the quarter, no questions asked. You should reserve these absences for the occasional emergency or illness. After two absences, your participation grade will be impacted.

3. Midterm (30%)

Using at least 3 of the academic sources we have read so far, develop a conceptual framework that articulates your unique perspective on technology. Your conceptual framework should integrate theoretical arguments from the readings covered thus far and your own personal identity and experience in the world. Ultimately, your conceptual framework should be useful, and productive. You will draw upon it to conduct a sociopolitical analysis of your technology. Your analysis will be designed to shed light on questions such as: What values do this technology reflect, embrace, reject, or encourage? Who is affected by its design? How was its design affected by society? Who reaps the benefits, and who suffers the costs of its creation and use?

4. Final Project (30%)

For your final assignment in this class, we want to push you to think about how you might want to contribute to a just, technologically-mediated future. You can think about this very broadly. For instance:

  • Writing a piece of science fiction that explores the social / ethical implications of a particular socio-technical phenomenon.
  • Prototyping an alternative platform/app that instantiates a set of ethical and political commitments
  • Designing a set of interactive tools / activities / games to help people learn more about a social or ethical challenge.
  • Creating a magazine or online journal of critical socio-techical thought
  • Organizing a career fair that highlights a different set of possible career trajectories
  • Making a documentary film
  • Hosting a podcast series
  • And more! We’ve curated a list of resources here that can give you some ideas.

You may work individually or in groups of no more than three people.

Other Grading Logistics

We will not be using the final exam time for this class because there is no midterm or final exam. Final grades are assigned on a fixed scale: 93-100 is an A, 90-92.99 is an A-, 87-89.99 is a B+, etc. Final course grades will not be curved.


We are working very hard to ensure our course is as accessible as possible. If you have any suggestions for how we can make the course more accessible, please reach out to us. If you have any AccessibleANU accommodations, please contact us as soon as possible so that we may work together to support your success in this course.

Office Hours

Wednesdays at noon (on class Zoom, with Prof V), Fridays at 1pm (on class Zoom, with Prof Natalie), By appointment with either/both of us (see Canvas)

Course Learning Goals

1. Recognize the impact of one’s own assumptions, biases, and experiences

Students will appreciate and understand how their own assumptions, experiences, worldviews, social location, and identity categories can and do impact the design, implementation, and use of computing technologies. Our hope is that students across a range of majors will become more conscious, sensitive, ethically aware, and humble thinkers/doers in the world.

2. Identify (and question) dominant/normative ways of thinking about computing and technology

Students will learn some techniques for recognizing social values in computer-mediated systems. This includes being able to identify how these systems can and do extend and challenge the power and reach of particular political and economic systems, cultural traditions, and societal norms – for better or for worse.

3. Consider offerings and limitations of current tech ethics frameworks

Students will compare frameworks that are currently utilized in tech ethics spaces, and identify their strengths and weaknesses. In other words, what do people mean when they say or do work in “tech ethics”?

4. Develop and apply frameworks for thinking about the relationship between technology and society

Students will develop mental models for considering when, how, or even if technological solutions are appropriate in a given situation. There are many ways to solve problems and shape social outcomes (e.g. law, policy, institutional supports, technologies, educational initiatives, and so forth). As such, we hope that students will recognize and value many different forms of participation and action within sociotechnical systems, and think broadly and holistically about innovation and creative problem-solving.

5. Evaluate one’s individual and communal ethical participation in the world

Lastly, students will formulate ideas (or strengthen existing ones) around responsibility and care; specifically, how they might use their own and their community’s knowledge, skills, dispositions, and creativity to participate in the world going forward. This may involve taking some future action (big or small), calling others in or out, exploring a new idea, reading more about a topic, or something else, towards fostering a more ethical and just society.

Syllabus Statements from the Provost’s Office

Below, we have also included the following statements, written by the Provost’s office:

Academic Integrity

Students in this course are required to comply with the policies found in the booklet, “Academic Integrity at Northwestern University: A Basic Guide”. All papers submitted for credit in this course must be submitted electronically unless otherwise instructed by the professor. Your written work may be tested for plagiarized content. For details regarding academic integrity at Northwestern or to download the guide, visit:


Northwestern University is committed to providing the most accessible learning environment as possible for students with disabilities. Should you anticipate or experience disability-related barriers in the academic setting, please contact AccessibleNU to move forward with the university’s established accommodation process (e:; p: 847-467-5530). If you already have established accommodations with AccessibleNU, please let me know as soon as possible, preferably within the first two weeks of the term, so we can work together to implement your disability accommodations. Disability information, including academic accommodations, is confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Prohibition of Recording of Class Sessions by Students

In this class, we will NOT be recording classes. Note from the Provost’s office:

Unauthorized student recording of classroom or other academic activities (including advising sessions or office hours) is prohibited. Unauthorized recording is unethical and may also be a violation of University policy and state law. Students requesting the use of assistive technology as an accommodation should contact AccessibleNU. Unauthorized use of classroom recordings — including distributing or posting them — is also prohibited.

Under the University’s Copyright Policy, faculty own the copyright to instructional materials — including those resources created specifically for the purposes of instruction, such as syllabi, lectures and lecture notes, and presentations. Students cannot copy, reproduce, display or distribute these materials. Students who engage in unauthorized recording, unauthorized use of a recording or unauthorized distribution of instructional materials will be referred to the appropriate University office for follow-up.

Support for Wellness and Mental Health

Northwestern University is committed to supporting the wellness of our students. Student Affairs has multiple resources to support student wellness and mental health. If you are feeling distressed or overwhelmed, please reach out for help. Students can access confidential resources through the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Religious and Spiritual Life (RSL) and the Center for Awareness, Response and Education (CARE). Additional information on all of the resources mentioned above can be found here:

COVID-19 Classroom Expectations

Students, faculty, and staff must comply with University expectations regarding appropriate classroom behavior, including those outlined below and in the COVID-19 Code of Conduct. With respect to classroom procedures, this includes:

  • Policies regarding masking and social distancing evolve as the public health situation changes. Students are responsible for understanding and complying with current masking, testing, Symptom Tracking, and social distancing requirements.
  • In some classes, masking and/or social distancing may be required as a result of an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation for the instructor or a student in the class even when not generally required on campus. In such cases, the instructor will notify the class.
  • No food is allowed inside classrooms. Drinks are permitted, but please keep your face covering on and use a straw.
  • Faculty may assign seats in some classes to help facilitate contact tracing in the event that a student tests positive for COVID-19. Students must sit in their assigned seats.

If a student fails to comply with the COVID-19 Code of Conduct or other University expectations related to COVID-19, the instructor may ask the student to leave the class. The instructor is asked to report the incident to the Office of Community Standards for additional follow-up.