Book Review

Yijun Gao

Ethics for the Information Age
by Michael J. Quinn.
Fifth edition.
Boston : Addison–Wesley, 2012.
ISBN–13: 978–0–1328–5553–2; ISBN–10: 0–132–85553–4.
Paper, xxiv, 523 p., illustrations, US$90.75.

Studying ethics is an exciting challenge for students of the information age, due, in part, to the constant and rapid progress of technology. New products, hot debates, as well as controversial court rulings are covered by the media or bloggers around the clock. Under these circumstances, Michael Quinn’s Ethics for the Information Age has been updated to cover the emerging issues.

Dr. Quinn, author of all five editions of this title, is Dean of the College of Science and Engineering at Seattle University. In this fifth edition of his book first published in 2005, he analyzes the ubiquitous ethical issues in today’s Web oriented society and, uniquely, leaves us much space to think and discuss.

Ethics for the Information Age is a comprehensive reference for students, librarians, or other information professionals for studying the social implications of new technologies in the twenty–first century. This book provides balanced and well–researched materials, to help current and potential practitioners establish their own up–to–date ethical principles for better services.

The author makes quite a few updates in the latest edition, which includes twenty–one new illustrations, references to the latest news stories, and analysis, aiming to prepare the readers to become responsible technology users of the information society.

Ethics for the Information Age consists of ten chapters. The first two offer us an introduction to contemporary information technologies and the relevant ethical foundations. Pros and cons of eight different ethical decision–making theories are discussed, including Kantianism, act utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism, and social contract theory for dealing with moral problems.

Throughout the remaining eight chapters, which make up the bulk of the book, the author presents issues related to information technology’s social implications for average users. For example, censorship, spam, pornography, cyberbullying, and Internet addiction significantly influence the quality of one’s personal life, freedom of speech, intellectual property and fair use, as well as abuses of peer–to–peer networks.

Dr. Quinn specifically discusses cyberbullying and the controversy surrounding attempts to make it a criminal offense; sexting by minors and the response of legal systems; the debate surrounding Google’s plan to digitize millions of public domain and copyrighted books by creating a searchable index of their contents, as well as illegal but popular online music/movie downloading issues. All of them merit more attention from today’s information professionals.

Specifically, chapter five and six focus on privacy issues related to cell phone users, online credit card transactions, and electronic banking systems, which should not be ignored by any service provider. Public information, secret governmental surveillance, the USA PATRIOT Act, data mining, identity theft, and Facebook’s ill–fated Beacon feature are thoroughly examined and offer the readers solid examples to ponder today’s privacy concerns.

Chapter seven reveals the vulnerabilities of inter–connected computer systems. Readers learn the differences among viruses, worms, and Trojan horses. This chapter notes the transformation of hacker culture and the emergence of “phone phreaks”. Besides denial of service attacks, the reliability of online voting systems, as well as the emergence of new and seemingly impossible–to–eradicate computer worms are also examined to describe the “online jungle”.

Software system failures, the reliability of computer simulations, software engineering as a discipline, and the validity of software warranties are the key issues explored in chapter eight, which stresses that computerized system failures have led to loss of business, property destruction, human suffering, and even death. This chapter shows many non–human technology factors related to the reliability issues of online information services.

Readers planning to work for the computer industry will find chapter nine to be especially relevant. It presents the Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, a professional code related to computing, followed by an analysis of the code as well as an introduction to virtue ethics. The impact of the economic recession on the demand for H–1B visas is also covered This chapter further illustrates how to use virtue ethics to asses moral dilemmas related to computers.

The last chapter raises many issues regarding information technology’s impacts on work and wealth, such as workplace monitoring, telecommuting, and globalization. It also addresses some controversial questions, including “Does automation increase unemployment?”, “Is there a digital divide separating society?”, “Is information technology widening the gap between rich and poor?” All topics presented in this chapter are of significance to the reader’s daily work.

Ethics for the Information Age is written in a lively style, which helps one better understand complex ethical theories and related current issues. It provides excellent general tools for undergraduate students of social science (i.e., economics or business management) and computer science, as well as library and information science students for studying the hot ethical topics. However, this book might be a little bit “light” for readers of in–depth ethics studies.

Another exclusive feature of this book are the interviews following each chapter. Leaders from academia, industry, and government give us additional perspectives on information privacy, computer security, online communities, the democratic potential of the World Wide Web, etc. These interviews aim to help readers build well–informed ethical foundations. The fifth edition replaces old interviews after chapters four, five, six, and ten with different experts from the ones in the previous editions.

As an instructor of library and information science, I would like to propose two new chapters for this book. The first one covers “social network systems and online news media”, which are currently discussed briefly in several chapters. Many controversial issues, such as censorship, information freedom, and intellectual property, are closely related to these two online information dissemination tools. Putting them under the same umbrella could make our readers better understand the latest developments and their ethical implications. The second one includes “data mining”, which is a significant task for today’s information professionals and relates to a number of privacy issues from chapters five and six. An independent chapter helps our readers gain a comprehensive view of this information retrieval technology as well as its ethical concerns. I would also like to merge chapters seven and eight into one (“vulnerability and reliability issues”), aiming to leave more space for discussing ethical issues than technology concerns.

Ethics for the Information Age challenges students to think critically and draw their own conclusions. Some readers might prefer “ready to use” guidelines to a proposal of intensive discussion. However, in this ever–changing information society, there is no “silver bullet” to deal with the dynamic ethical issues. Therefore, I believe Ethics for the Information Age does what a good ethics textbook should do, and I recommend it to our readers.

About the Author

Yijun Gao, Ph.D., is assistant professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Public Domain License.