Issue No.03 - May-June (2004 vol.2)
Published by the IEEE Computer Society
Shari Lawrence Pfleeger , RAND
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MSP.2004.5
Book review of "A Gift of Fire: The Social, Legal and Ethical Issues for Computers and the Internet," by Sara Baase.
A Gift of Impact
Sara Baase, A Gift of Fire: The Social, Legal and Ethical Issues for Computers and the Internet (2nd edition), Prentice Hall, 2002, ISBN 0130082155, 480 pages, US$56.
As computers pervade more aspects of our lives, automated computing's social, legal, and ethical consequences become more significant in our decision-making—not only as computing professionals but also as citizens, parents, and consumers. Sara Baase's book, A Gift of Fire: The Social, Legal and Ethical Issues for Computers and the Internet, provides a solid basis for understanding computing's impact on each of us. Her clear, balanced prose addresses many complex issues, from privacy, communication, and trust to freedom of speech, intellectual property, and computer crime. Every chapter paints a picture of how computing affects results—positively and negatively.
For the issue addressed, Baase presents its history, contributions, and possible negative consequences. She incorporates important and often lively examples to illustrate her points. For example, her privacy discussion introduces jurists Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis' arguments that we can infer a right to privacy from the US Constitution, as well as Massachusetts Institute of Technology philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson's counterarguments that we can't. She illustrates her point with simple computing examples in daily life, many of which will intrigue security and privacy practitioners and researchers because they involve the trade-offs between confidentiality and availability.
Baase's clear and comfortable writing style engages readers, forcing them to think about many issues they might take for granted. Several years ago, I used the first edition of this book to teach an honors undergraduate course. Students found it accessible and enjoyable, especially when supplemented with newspaper and magazine articles. This second edition is even more so, because of new compelling examples, particularly those related to terrorism and the US's current emphasis on homeland security.
I recommend reading the last chapter first, because Baase postpones discussing the theories of ethics until the very end of the book. Having an ethics framework provides a context for her discussion of computing's societal benefits. For example, we can consider something to be a benefit to society only if we have some sense of what we mean by a societal "good."
This insightful book leaves room for improvement on two fronts. First, rights play a major role in deciding whether an action is acceptable, but Baase never distinguishes between a right and a privilege. For example, she talks about the right to access the Internet, when it might be more appropriate to think of it as a privilege. Second, she wrote this book from an almost entirely American perspective. It would be richer and offer more to more readers if it had an international perspective. For example, US privacy law is a patchwork, where privacy is related to the thing that is kept private; there are different laws for privacy of financial information, medical information, educational information, and so on. Some privacy-related laws are federal but others are specific to a single state. By contrast, Europe has overarching privacy directives that create uniform and consistent laws across subjects and countries; she doesn't mention this approach until the end of the privacy chapter, and she doesn't compare the pros and cons of each approach.
Nevertheless, Baase paints an appealing and varied landscape of how computers continually touch our lives. She helps us understand the implications of the choices we make by involving computers in our personal and professional lives. Computing has made us richer in some aspects, poorer in others; Baase offers ways to find a comfortable balance, along with cautions about the indirect effects of our actions A Gift of Fire should be required reading for every computing professional.
Shari Lawrence Pfleeger is a senior researcher at RAND, where she helps organizations and government agencies understand whether and how information technology supports their mission and goals. She has a PhD in information technology and engineering from George Mason University. She is a senior member of the IEEE, the IEEE Computer Society, and the ACM. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.