COMMS 208: Digital Communication Ethics

COMMS 208: Digital Communication Ethics

SEMESTER 2, 2019 - 15 points

Format: 2 hours of lectures + 1 hour of lab / tutorial per week

(Timetable and room details can be viewed on Student Services Online)


Mondays 2:00 PM @ Engineering Block 1, Room 439


Lecturer: Dr. Ethan Plaut (

Office: Soc. Sci. Bldg 201E-529

Office Hours: FRIDAY from Noon - 1pm (and by appointment) 



GTA Daniel Wilson  (

Office Hours: Wednesday 1-2 pm room HSB 528 (and by appointment)


GTA Ben Hall (

Office Hours: Tue/Wed 12-1pm HSB room 528, or by appointment.


Summary of Course Description:         

We now use algorithms to help decide who goes to prison and who receives healthcare, but those systems are fraught with biases. Will we be able to equitably distribute the vast benefits of artificial intelligence — and manage its risks? When social media are used to erode democracy, who is responsible? If old mobile phones are filling toxic waste dumps, should I still upgrade to the latest model?

This course looks beyond the personal computer to address ethical issues raised by smartphones, GPS navigation, biometric modelling, AI and the ever-expanding range of devices tracking us through the so-called "internet of things".

We consider issues such as algorithmic bias, “big data” surveillance and privacy, digital journalism and intellectual property from a range of different perspectives. Programmers and media professionals may frame these questions differently from lawyers, policymakers and diverse communities of users around the globe who depend on computing technologies every day from positions of power and precarity alike.

We draw upon the Western philosophical tradition’s ethical frameworks but decenter those perspectives, instead emphasising questions raised by Māori, Confucian and other non-Western understandings of what constitutes good and right ways of living together.

Course Structure:         

This course is organized around expanding levels of scale. So we start with the tiniest things, like nanotechnology and genetic information, and over the course of twelve weeks we move up to the scale of individual people, then out to the scale of the classroom, then the city, the nation, and ultimately the whole world. 

Many courses related to ethics and technology are focused on best professional practices in various industries, and proceed by analysing case studies, learning methods to deliberate on what an individual person should do when faced with an ethically difficult decision. In this course, we will sometimes work in this way, especially during small group tutorials with our brilliant GTAs, Daniel and Ben. But many of our readings and topics discussed in lecture will consider broader structural questions about technology and the 'good life.'


The grade for this course is split down the middle: 50% for assignments + participation, 50% for quizzes + exam. You will be free to choose an area of passion or interest for your final project — more assignment details TBA soon. There will be two quizzes of 10% each. Quizzes will be held during lecture and may cover any and all readings, lectures and other materials addressed in the course up to and including the day of the quiz. The final exam will be worth 30%. 

How To Succeed in This Course        

Pacing is especially important in a course that covers this much diverse material. There are a few ways that pacing is structured into our deadlines. For example, instead of having a massive 50% final exam like many undergrad courses, we have two quizzes (10% each) + smaller final exam (30%). We will also have some preliminary deadlines for specific parts of the final project. Hopefully these decisions help to avoid stressful all-nighters! Nonetheless much of the pacing is up to you. Here are some tips: 

  • Take detailed notes in lecture. This does NOT mean verbatim transcription. Rather, outline the most important points being discussed, in your own words, including your own questions and thoughts about it! (Please consider trying one or more of these note-taking systems — finding which techniques are right for you will make your life as a student SO much better!!)
  • Budget time to do the readings over the weekend BEFORE each Monday lecture. Take notes while you read, including things like: what are the author's main points? Are there important questions left unanswered?  How does it relate to other readings in the course? 
  • All readings are NOT created equal! Often something listed as a required reading in this course will be only 3 or 5 pages. Another reading might be 40 pages long but full of pictures and white space. Some pieces are written for a popular audience — magazine articles, for example — but there are scholarly articles and textbook chapters too. Ethan will usually share some advice on how to approach the readings each week, either during lecture or in a Canvas announcement. (Occasionally a reading will be replaced by a video, in which case the advice about note-taking is basically the same: take notes while you watch it!) 
  • We promise to keep the number of Canvas announcements and email communications to a reasonably small number, but that means announcements will sometimes have a bunch of important information on multiple topics. So please carefully read all Canvas announcements or other email communication from Ethan and the GTAs! 

How To Communicate With Us & Each Other:

Even if you don't have any questions to ask, please come to both Ethan's and the GTAs' office hours. Talking to students is the loveliest part of academia, but for those conversations to happen, you have to show up!  Ethan's office — and I am  💯serious about this — has retro video games and an electric guitar and usually also some chocolate. Feel free to bring a random friend or a cute dog or a sandwich, whatever makes you comfortable, just be sure you come.

GTA office hours details TBA. 

Although talking face to face is our favorite way to communicate with students, you can also ask questions on our Piazza site. There's a tab right here in the Canvas navigation bar, and Piazza is the fastest way to get answers to most kinds of questions, because you can get feedback from fellow students, both of your GTAs, and Ethan all in the same place. We strongly encourage you to answer each other's questions on Piazza! 

Of course you can also email us, especially for personal matters or if the question seems inappropriate to share with the larger group. This guide to emailing your teachers is full of good advice. 

Also: Just be kind. University can be wondrous, especially if we all support each other, but students also struggle in silence with all kinds of things we don't know about each other. (Your teachers are human, too). Respect each other's cultures and identities to build a little community in which we can make mistakes and laugh together. Also, when things get complicated, you can always talk to Ethan about anything at all, and of course the university provides support for both personal and academic issues

Other Important Stuff:

We expect your best original work, held to the high standards laid out in the Student Charter, university policy on academic integrity and copyright, etc. If you are unfamiliar with any of these policies, please look here. (Word of advice: just don't plagiarise or otherwise cheat, and generally err to the side of caution by citing everything that might be construed as a source in your student work). 

Unless noted otherwise in the assignment, assume late submissions are penalized 10% per day. If you are sick or have some other extenuating circumstance, you may seek an extension by contacting your GTA before the assignment is due.

Accessibility and Inclusion: Everyone should be able to succeed in the class. 
If some form of accommodation is needed for you to thrive in here and do your best work, please let me know. Folks with non-visible disabilities are especially encouraged to reach out so we know to consider your needs. I also recognize that parenting and being a student at the same time can be difficult. Breast-feeding babies are always  💯 welcome in class, and although we cannot regularly accommodate older children, you are welcome to bring a child to class if there are last-minute unforeseeable disruptions to childcare (e.g., the normal caregiver falls ill without adequate time to find someone else). 

Personal Needs: Students' performance can be compromised when they have trouble securing housing, food, and other basic needs. The Faculty of Arts Student Development and Engagement team is available to help with these issues and otherwise provide support when personal issues overwhelm academic responsibilities. If you are comfortable in telling Ethan about these issues, he will also try to find ways to help. 

P.S. - Syllabi are strange documents. I agree with almost everything Sonya Huber says here in her "Shadow Syllabus" (even if I might say it a bit differently). 


APPENDIX: Standard University Boilerplate Text

                                         Well-Being Always Comes First

We all go through tough times during the semester, or see our friends struggling. There is lots of help out there. For more information, look at this Canvas page, which has links to various support services in the University and the wider community.

Workload and deadlines for submission of coursework 

The University of Auckland's expectation is that students spend 10 hours per week on a 15-point course, including time in class and personal study. Students should manage their academic workload and other commitments accordingly. Deadlines for coursework are set by course convenors and will be advertised in course material. You should submit your work on time. In extreme circumstances, such as illness, you may seek an extension but you may be required to provide supporting information before the assignment is due. Late assignments without a pre-approved extension may be penalised by loss of marks – check course information for details.

Course summary:

Date Details Due