A Commencement Address

On April 30th I was the speaker at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Information Sciences commencement ceremony. This was the last commencement of the school, as it becomes the School of Computing and Information on July 1. This was a great honor, and a nice way of marking my own forthcoming retirement on December 31. I was asked to address the topic of the school’s focus on information ethics. Here is the address.

As a professional school, most students arrive here with specific vocational aims. This makes sense. However, if we fixate on just the practical, we shortchange you and ourselves.

Life is complicated, no less so than with the information professions. Technology has long been known to often have unintended consequences. The Web has contributed, as just one example, to issues now dubbed as fake news, relying on the notion that there will always be some people who believe almost anything, as they rail against what they perceive to be gatekeepers, just because they can find it on the Web.

Isn’t it ironic that what some are now calling the Post-Truth Age was not long ago confidently called the Information Age? By trying to focus on building and harnessing new digital tools, we miss the ethical implications of our work. It has taken me the better part of three decades to understand this. We need to remember that because our work is at the heart of the time we live in that what we do and how we do it is far more important than we usually think.

It is no secret that social media, buttressed by a glittering array of digital information technologies, now play substantial roles in national and international political, cultural, economic, and other activities. We believe we know more. However, constant haranguing about “post-truth,” “alternative facts,” and “fake news” suggest we really do not.

Ethics is an essential component in the education and work of all information professionals. By ethics we mean having sensitivity to the moral dimensions and actions of what we do. Technology is not something we can ever assume is neutral; it operates within society and its institutions and is affected by politics, economics, culture, and other factors, as many have suggested over quite a long time. Information ethics has been an important topic in our School since the 1980s.

We must be sensitive to the consequences of our use of information technologies, so that we do not develop and use ones with negative implications for society. As information professionals, it is our responsibility to act ethically, meaning even disobeying at times (by refusing, resigning, or leaking) what we have been ordered to do. This is, of course, difficult. We should not be surprised about the sometimes dismal role of information technologies in our society, since we often treat these technologies like part of a religious experience, determining how we think and act. This is why information ethics is so important. We, as individuals, need to be prepared to work ethically. Our information schools ought to be places where both faculty and students learn to contend with contrary views, skepticism, ironies, and other challenges.

Our School has had a long tradition of focusing on the ethical aspects of information work and use. Our previous dean, Toni Carbo, working with Professor Stephen Almagno, established a course and lecture series on information ethics. Professor Kip Currier now continues to teach the information ethics course, and he is also writing a new textbook on the topic. I teach a course on Archival Ethics and have written books and articles about such matters. There is also an Ethics Reading group, and out of it has emerged a project to produce a book of essays, tentatively entitled The Conscience of an iSchool. We are dedicating this book to our current Dean, Ron Larsen, who has supported our efforts to integrate ethics into the curriculum. I am hopeful that the new School of Computing and Information will continue to have a strong focus on ethical issues.

We are a nation built on laws, information, transparency, and citizens’ rights. There are also international human rights statements upholding such values. It is easy, in the transition from analog to digital, to grasp onto a technocratic belief – that technology dictates us and our activities. My purpose today is to offer some advice for graduates as you make your way into the profession and world.

Consider You Own Ethical and Related Beliefs and Principles. How each of you handles what I am discussing has to do with your personal moral and religious sensibilities. Some, philosophers and others, argue that you do not need religious values for ethical conduct. Maybe. But I think you need something that is bigger and better than yourself. Ultimately, faced with an ethical dilemma, what will guide you? If you have nothing to draw on, you will be lost.

Become Familiar with Your Professional Ethics Codes. Professional associations have ethics codes or professional conduct statements. While these vary in quality, sometimes too general or lacking enforcement mechanisms, they nevertheless provide a good starting point for understanding the ethical implications of our work.

Read Widely About Professional Work and Its Societal Context. Once you graduate, you cannot stop reading the professional and scholarly literature. Books, articles, Websites, all abound and offer many different perspectives about the role of digital information technologies. Read different perspectives and wrestle with contrary views.

Disconnect and Reflect on the Bigger Implications of What You Do or Want to Do. We have become so accustomed to hearing about the power of information, that we stay connected 24/7, giving ourselves little time, if any, to reflect on matters like the ethical issues we might face. We need time to reflect. Surfing and browsing on the Web is not the same as reading and reflecting.

Understand How Your Employing Organization Works and What It Values. You need to understand what you might face in your organization. Given the nature of work you do as information professionals, it is quite likely that sooner, rather than later, that you will encounter inappropriate or questionable actions. What will you do? Start preparing now for these challenges.

Question Everything. You need to be skeptical about what you do, asking hard questions, challenging yourselves about your intentions and aspirations, as well as challenging, when necessary, others. We all accept the power of the technologies we are working with, and this means we must accept the great responsibilities we have been given.

Listen Carefully. Become good, and respectful, listeners. Try to understand other points of view. We spend a lot of time talking over each other, creating greater problems.

Be Prepared to Speak Out. No one can deal with unethical issues and other related matters unless you are prepared to speak out. This takes conviction and courage. It is not easy. I am hopeful that what I am saying will begin to help you prepare to be this kind of information professional.

You are graduating from a university whose motto is Truth and Virtue. When you look at your diploma, you will see those words on its seal. They are not there by accident or without intent. They are not some secret code. These words provide practical advice to live and work by. I hope this will set a responsibility heavy on your hearts and minds as you move forward. Congratulations on finishing your degrees.

Thank you, and God speed.

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