By Sarah Colson
Police departments crunch a lot of data these days, and when they’re working together across jurisdictional lines, the opportunity for ethical issues regarding the use of that data increases. Enter Dr. Donald Gotterbarn – retired East Tennessee State University professor, computer ethics expert, watercolor artist, and now a finalist for the World Technology Network’s ethics award for visionary contributions to science and technology.
Gotterbarn is in New York this week for the awards, presented in association with Time and Fortune magazines, CNN, Science/AAAS and Technology Review. The awards recognize people in 30 categories doing “the innovative work of the greatest likely long-term significance,” and finalists, the WTN says, were chosen through a months-long “intense global process.”
Several times a year, Gotterbarn is in Europe helping the European Union and member nations “make sure that what they’re planning to do and what they do doesn’t cause any ethical problems,” Gotterbarn said. “If I (believe) something is going in the wrong direction, then I can make a suggestion or a recommendation.”
Gotterbarn is not all computers, codes, engineering and ethics. In fact, nowadays much of his time is spent painting beautiful East Tennessee landscapes.
The same love for solving problems that drove Gotterbarn to computing ethics is what drove him to watercolor. But with watercolor, he said, “it becomes an interesting problem with a whole lot less impact than computing problems have.”
Gotterbarn has been in the business of computing ethics about as long as a person could be, considering his career took off the same time computers and the Internet were beginning to make their way into the lives of everyday Americans. In fact, if you were to take a look at his resume, along with his water coloring skills, you might be surprised to find things atypical for the usual computing whiz. Gotterbarn holds a Bachelor’s of Art from Hofstra University, a Master’s of Divinity from Colgate Rochester Divinity School, a Masters of Art from the University of Rochester, and a Ph.D. from the Rochester as well.
His interest in computers, he said, took off when he was teaching a philosophy class at the University of Southern California at the beginning of his career.
During his spare time, he decided to sit in on a few of the computer classes the school was offering. He and his wife moved to Pennsylvania a few years later and that’s when Gotterbarn did some work for the Philadelphia Navy Yard in computing.
“In computing in those days it wasn’t a formally-specified science,” he said, laughing. “So you started to think about, wait a minute, I’m doing stuff with a cruiser and destroyer. I’m doing stuff with a submarine, and you heard the degrees that I mentioned. Did you hear computing or physics in that? I’m a very curious individual and while I was doing philosophy teaching and things like that, I was sitting in on and taking computer classes at the university I was working at.”
His work in computing helped Gotterbarn realize the need to combine this burgeoning technological world with his knowledge and training in philosophy. But up until that point, the term “computer ethics” didn’t even exist.
“I started to realize that we need some standards and at that time nobody was teaching courses in computer ethics,” he said. “It hadn’t really been a term that was invented.”
So when someone in Pennsylvania offered him a job in computing, he took it.
“That’s always been my first love so I went back into teaching and started to teach a computer ethics course, and found that there were three of us in the country in 1984 who were doing that,” Gotterbarn said. “And I guess the world went crazy from there.”
Gotterbarn said teaching computing ethics at the dawn of the computing age had its challenges. The world was just beginning to realize the potential for computing technology and the Internet. At the same time, so many were getting lost in the excitement of it all that few stopped to consider the implications of the new technology.
“Because computing is changing so rapidly, one of the things that happens is people get excited by what they’re inventing that’s new and they don’t consider their moral responsibilities when doing these innovations,” he said.
Gotterbarn’s job, however, was and still is to realize and communicate those potential implications for both individuals and organizations.
One example involves the changes in society that came along with something as simple as the invention of the barcode and scanning systems most grocery stores now use. He remembers the day when his brother got his first job in a supermarket and had to memorize the prices of each item. That may have made the process slower, but Gotterbarn said the stores gained a different type of employee/customer relationship that now is lacking.
“My brother was an asset to the store by being an ambassador to everybody who came in the store,” he said. “Now these employees have the primary view that their job is to scan the highest number of items per minute. The people who designed that scanner changed society in ways they had no idea they were doing. That’s computing ethics.”
That passion for helping others see past their inventions led Gotterbarn to establish the Software Engineering Ethics Research Institute in 1997. Starting in 1990, he had a highly successful career teaching in the Computing department at East Tennessee State University (he retired in 2005).
Gotterbarn chairs the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) Committee on Professional Ethics, is a primary author of its Software Engineering Code of Ethics, and is a member of the British Computer Society Ethics Expert Forum. He’s a founding member of the Australian Institute of Computer Ethics Task Force, and organized the first Global Conference on Computing Ethics, held in Malaysia in 2012. Gotterbarn’s most recent project is working on several international research projects in Europe to help the European Union better understand its own police systems and how to make ethical decisions.
“It keeps me a little busy,” Gotterbarn said of his current projects. The other thing that keeps him “a little busy,” Gotterbarn said, is trying to keep up with the ever-changing technology. Still, Gotterbarn embraces the challenge.
“One of the things that happens that makes computing so exciting is that it changes every bloody day,” he said with a chuckle. “You keep up with whatever you can and then you recognize that you can’t. The way you keep up is to maintain a humble attitude and say ‘I can’t do that, let me send it off to someone else who can.’”
While humility may be the key to Gotterbarn’s successful career, the other piece is that his once seemingly peculiar education in philosophy is what has made him nearly perfect for computing ethics in the first place.
“The job of a philosopher is to look at all sides of an argument and not just take the initial one at face value,” he explained. “So in some sense, we’re a pain in the neck because if you say ‘x and y,’ we’ll say, ‘well have you considered if x got bigger or smaller or turned on its side?’ We’re trained to consider all sides of an argument.”
Gotterbarn plans to remain very much involved in computing ethics worldwide, and continue to stay sane by being a part of the local water coloring community.
“It’s good therapy,” he said. “I’m a watercolorist because I’m the same guy I was 50 years ago. If you say that something new and interesting is also a challenge, I want to know about it.”