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Book Review: A Gift of Fire 52

benrothke writes "In the 4th edition of A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues for Computing Technology, author Sara Baase takes a broad look at the social, legal and ethical issues around technology and their implications. Baase notes that her primary goal in writing the book is for computer professionals to understand the implications of what they create and how it fits into society. The book is an interesting analysis of a broad set of topics. Combined with Baase's superb writing skills, the book is both an excellent reference and a fascinating read." Read below for the rest of Ben's review.
A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues for Computing Technology (4th Edition)
author Sara Baase
pages 496
publisher Prentice Hall
rating 9/10
reviewer Ben Rothke
ISBN 978-0132492676
summary Superb reference on social and other issues in computing
The books gets it title from the mythical tale of Prometheus, who stole heavenly fire and gave it to the human race, which then used it to empower civilization. Someone commented to the author that perhaps Pandora's Boxmay be a better metaphor to use, as Pandora's Box held all of the ills of mankind.

While Baase wrote the book to be used in her computer science course, the book is not an indigestible academic tome; rather a very topical reference. Its 9 densely packed chapters covering nearly 450 pages provide a comprehensive locus.

While legal themes are pervasive throughout the book, Baase writes that she is a computer scientist and not a lawyer and that appropriate legal counsel should be obtained before drawing any legal conclusions.

Chapter 1 opens with an overview of how change and unexpected developments effect IT projects and information technology. And that is the overall theme of the book, of how new things often have unexpected problems and results. Anyone familiar with the Risks Digestedited by Peter Neumann will be at home with these topics.

The chapter details the notion of a kill switchand details some of the potential uses and risks involved, and how that more often than not, theses kill switches are improperly designed and deployed.

The chapter concludes with the important thought that there are no simple answers (contrary to popular media belief) and that we can't solve ethical problems by simply applying a formula, algorithm or deploying a piece of software. This is due to the complexity of human nature and that ethical theories don't always provide clear and incontrovertible positions on all issues.

The chapter closes, like all of the chapters in the book with a series of review exercises, general exercises, assignments (remember this is a textbook), a list of books and articles for further reading, and an extremely detailed set of endnotes. Each chapter has a long set of endnotes due to Baase's attention to details and excellent research. This assignments and exercises for the class the book is used for can be downloaded here. Baase also has a web site with other supplementary information and resources.

Chapter 2 details various issues around data and personal privacy. An interesting fact detailed is that Maricopa Country in Arizona was one of the first municipalities to put complete public records on the web. Little did county official know that such an action would eventually lead the county to have the highest rate of identity theft in the USA.

The chapter also compares US privacy regulations with that of the European Union (EU). Baase notes that the perception is that US privacy policy is far behind that of the EU. But what many people don't realize is that the US and EU have very different cultures and traditions, which manifest itself in how each regulates privacy.

Baase writes that the EU tends to put more emphasis on regulation and centralization; whereas the US puts more emphasis on contracts, consumer pressure, flexibility and freedom of the market. The US also has higher penalties for abuse of personal information via deceptive and unfair business practices.

Chapter 7 deals with how to evaluate and control technology and is the most insightful chapter in the book. Baase writes of the inherent conflict between a democracy and open Internet, while dealing with the plethora of incorrect, foolish and biased information. She makes note of some totalitarian regimes that prohibit anti-government use of social media. She illustrates cases where these countries (China and Syria are just two of them) that create bogus dissident sites, find out which people are sympathetic to the cause, and then arrests these people.

Baase details and defends against many neo-Luddite views of computers, technology and quality of life. Baase provides numerous anecdotes of environmental and other anti-technology groups that rail against technology, but use computers and the web. She writes of the editor who considers himself a neo-Luddite, a person who sees technology as inherently evil; yet disseminates his views via email, computers and laser printers. Compare this with members of various anti-vaccination movements, who are obvious to the millions of lives saved by vaccinations.

The chapter also details some of the duplicitous views of Kirkpatrick Sale, another neo-Luddite who rages against the computer machine, while simultaneously benefiting significantly from it, and using it.

Baase defends technology in writing that those who are critical of modern technology point out their weaknesses, but often ignore the weakness of the alternatives. An example she gives is the millions of acres once needs to grow feed for horses and the hundreds of tons of horse manure dropped on the streets of cities, as recent as a century ago. Candles, gas lamps and kerosene filled homes with fumes and soot; doesn't that make electricity a valuable commodity?

Baase gives many other examples of the problems and controversial issues surrounding technology. But more importantly, notes, and celebrates the enormous benefits that computer technology and the Internet has brought us.

The only significant negative of the book is its price tag. While it is officially a textbook, it is manifest in its suggested retail price of $102.00. Note though the book is available on Amazon for much cheaper, in addition to used copies which are even less.

Social media, computers and other aspect of technology have brought massive changes to society. Many of these changes are highly beneficial, others not. There are myriad questions that need to be asked, and ideas that need to be understood, and the books covers and answers those in details.

For those looking for an across-the-board superb reference on social and other issues in computing, A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues for Computing Technology is a terrific resource and an invaluable reference guide.

Ben Rothke is the author of Computer Security: 20 Things Every Employee Should Know.

You can purchase A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues for Computing Technology (4th Edition) from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.


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Book Review: A Gift of Fire

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  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday January 21, 2013 @04:22PM (#42650515)

    There's some interesting homonyms in the review, like "obvious" for "oblivious" and I don't even know what the "manifest" line WRT the price means.

    It does strike me as a problem when intro level textbooks cost more than just hiring an unemployed grad student for a couple tutoring sessions. Soon, textbook prices will average over $250 each and at that point I believe I could personally individually tutor someone of average intelligence better than any textbook could teach them. Or at $50/hr I could search for, edit, print, and collate wikipedia articles for five hours, which would probably result in a better text than your average ghostwriter.

    By the time textbooks exceed $500 each, probably another 5 years or so, instead of hiring a goofball like me you'll be able to hire actual authors, cutting out the middlemen completely. I believe bespoke textbooks are the wave of the future, and someone should start a dotcom to facilitate them.

    • "Obvious" and "oblivious" are not homonyms. A homonym, in the loosest sense, is a word that shares the same spelling or the same pronunciation as another word. Those two words share neither. In the strictest sense, a homonym shares both spelling and pronunciation. These two words are even farther from that. I'm not sure what, if any, term means a word that looks like another valid word when it's misspelled. It's not homonym, though.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Indeed, the obvious/oblivious confusion that the GP refers to, assuming it's not just a typo, is called a malapropism. [] The use of manifest in the sentence "While it is officially a textbook, it is manifest in its suggested retail price of $102.00" is, I suspect, a simple case of "I do not think it means what you think it means." []

        I hope you enjoyed today's installment of Snarky Pedantry on Language from a Stranger on the Internet.

        • by vlm ( 69642 )

          Ah thank you AC it took 3 of us but we finally figured everything out about the malapropism.

          Still confused as to what the "manifest" means, exactly. I googled for "it is manifest in" and its a cross cultural (no kidding!) religious phrase more or less boiling down to "it is acting as or becoming a part of" or something like that. Concatenation, or perhaps more like instantiate a class. I think the original review author is writing something like its officially a textbook (self description?) but what REAL

    • by Genda ( 560240 )

      Because in many cases the textbook was written by the teacher, and its an added income, you pay the premium the instructor specifies. That and a textbook comes with a teachers edition, supplemental content, etc, so writing a textbook is an order of magnitude bigger a job than writing the great American Novel. That said, we need to be able to go through the hundreds of great out of print textbooks on Google Book or whatever repository and piece together some great books particularly in math and other fields

  • Fits into society (Score:4, Interesting)

    by gmuslera ( 3436 ) on Monday January 21, 2013 @04:35PM (#42650639) Homepage Journal
    That is the wrong direction. Technology is making deep changes into society, and moral, ethics and laws should adapt to the new reality. Trying to deny that all changed and try to force them will cause problems.
    • Technology is making deep changes into society, and moral, ethics and laws should adapt to the new reality.

      There's a certain balance to be struck. We can't completely adapt our morals, ethics and laws every time a technological change comes along. For an obvious example: murder is wrong. It's wrong whether it's committed with your bare hands, with a rock, with a club, with a spear, with a sword, with a bow, with a gun, with a remotely piloted drone, or with some weapon we can't even imagine yet. Any society that hopes to exist for any length of time has to have moral codes against killing, as a general rule

      • by gmuslera ( 3436 )

        There is a balance, but beware of absolutes. Killing could lose meaning regarding some potential technology advances (two easy examples from sci-fi are Neuromancer and Star Trek teleporters, but probably there are more everyday examples). And moral, laws and ethics in all man history (even today) had been pretty flexible putting killing as something right.

        Regarding speed, think in i.e. "stealing" digital goods, as in making copies of something for your own use without making those goods unavailable for th

  • by PPH ( 736903 ) on Monday January 21, 2013 @04:42PM (#42650699)

    "I wish that all of mankind would give up it's warlike ways and the Earth would become a society of pacifists. That way, I could take it over with a butter knife."


  • To buy this book is $81.47, to rent it is $34.50.

    Seems a bit steep, no?

    • by Dahamma ( 304068 )

      Almost unethical, even...

  • I'm impressed that the author (probably) thought of such a great title for the topic.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    A discussion of internet ethics with no mention of copyrights and patents?

    It doesn't seem a very complete treatment of the subject.

    • by steveg ( 55825 )

      Chapter 4. The reviewer does not step through each chapter of the book and describe it. Not everything covered in the book is mentioned in the review. The review doesn't mention free speech or crime, or employment issues either. That doesn't mean they are missing from the book.

      She spends 40 pages on Intellectual Property, or almost 50 if you count the exercises and notes, etc. at the end of the chapter.

  • Prometheus gave fire to man because he didn't want them to die out in nakedness, ignorance, and poverty

    Zeus, the Big God, was angry so he pulled the whole Pandora's Box thing (also rendered as Pandora's Jar)... basically a trick to "stick it to"
    Prometheus and/or Mankind. (aside from tying prometheus to a rock and having an eagle eat out his liver repeatedly for ever)

    Now what did Zeus use to bind prometheus? He sent Violence itself. Not some guy who did violence --- violence itself.

    Apparently Zeus

  • "Steal this book."

    Somehow, "Download a soft copy of this book " doesn't have the same thrill.

  • I had Dr. Baase as a professor at SDSU for assembly language as well as a course with the same name as the book (albeit a much earlier edition). The book is a good read and Dr Baase definitely knows her stuff, but as previous comments have pointed out her book doesn't do more than touch on issues of copyright. What I remember from the ethics course had mostly to do with privacy and personal information, but being an undergrad course it didn't do much more than provide a broad overview.

The absent ones are always at fault.