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Book Review: A Gift of Fire

samzenpus posted about a year and a half ago | from the read-all-about-it dept.

Books 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.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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Nihao, bitches!1 (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42650275)

Let's face you: you better learn a fucking second language, and it'd better be Korean.

America's lost it, our day in the limelight has passed. Buy a Toyota -- oh, wait, you already did-- get a LG television, and hold onto your iPhone tight, because the next one you buy'll be a Samsung Galaxy. It's inevitable, the future belongs to the land of the rising sun: porn cartoons, bullet trains, samurai, and all that shit. It's the future, man. I hope you're gonna be able to speak the language.

Re:Nihao, bitches!1 (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42650333)

Please delete that comment above moderator!

Re:Nihao, bitches!1 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42650491)

Well now I know who I want to burn with my gift of fire...

Re:Nihao, bitches!1 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42650513)

that is soooooo mean!

Re:Nihao, bitches!1 (2)

vlm (69642) | about a year and a half ago | (#42650553)

That's actually a pretty good point, in that the review didn't even list what each chapter was about, but one of the chapters should be dealing with peculiar collision of cultures like never seen before, as per the above brilliant post/troll/whatever it is. Given "social" is in the title of the book you'd think moderation or lack thereof would be an interesting part of the book.

Re:Nihao, bitches!1 (1)

drakaan (688386) | about a year and a half ago | (#42650619)

Isn't 'nihao' Chinese?

Re:Nihao, bitches!1 (1)

Genda (560240) | about a year and a half ago | (#42651187)

Yes, Mandarin phonetic spelling for Chinese. "Bitches" is an idiom, but there are plenty of Chinese invectives that would be close enough for government work :-) Perhaps he should check out some Chinese Rap, its big in Taiwan right now./p

Re:Nihao, bitches!1 (1)

Genda (560240) | about a year and a half ago | (#42650939)

Despite the fact you're post is grotesquely off topic, vaguely racist and altogether ignorant regarding the changes of the day, its actually pretty easy to bring this back to topic. Accelerating technological change yields unpredictable changes in society at an ever accelerating pace. Your observation about Asia is a linear extrapolation of what's happened over the last fifteen years leading us here. Problem is the process is nonlinear and chaotic. Robotics will moot the cost advantages of low priced Asian Labor and bring manufacturing back to the U.S. Of course it won't mean any significant jobs except for those few building and maintaining robots. In a short while, all labor will be done by robots including the driving of your car. It will have to happen on ethical grounds. Robotic cars won't crash, will work no matter the state of the person in the front seat, and will be 100% reliable. There will be no choice in the matter. As ever improving AI makes robots more versatile, productive and economic, vast human work forces will be eliminated.

Technology amplifies social forces. We are currently a planet being victimized by a Plutocratic parasitic organization which has effectively manipulated and now controlled virtually all first world banking institutions and governments. Their goal is to rule the planet and reduce humanity to its service. Technology amplifies this effect. There is also a growing body of common people rising to take back what is rightfully theirs. That process is being amplified by technology. The destruction of natural resources and the invention of completely new resources all pour from ever accelerating technology.

There is a corollary to Murphey's Law that states "Whenever you open a can of worms, you need a larger can to collect all together again." Welcome to entropy."

Re:Nihao, bitches!1 (1)

tedgyz (515156) | about a year and a half ago | (#42653043)

Refer to December 2012 Despair calendar [] .


The bad news is robots can do your job now. The good news is we're now hiring robot repair technicians. The worse news is we're working on robot-fixing robots- and we do not anticipate any further good news.

Re:Nihao, bitches!1 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42669751)

::: grotesquely off topic, vaguely racist and altogether ignorant r

That Can Be Applied to Most Slashdot comments :)

Re:Nihao, bitches!1 (1)

Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) | about a year and a half ago | (#42651419)

Well, the book review author clearly doesn't natively speak English already.

Re:Nihao, bitches!1 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42651799)

Native English would be American

Re:Nihao, bitches!1 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42667075)

Ah, a troll who doesn't know the difference between China, Japan and Korea. How provincial.

Re:Nihao, bitches!1 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42668489)

boorish reply from a boor, what a b..

Oh god! (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42650495)

Piss...piss in my ass!!

Re:Oh god! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42652041)

heh, funny story. I was bottoming for some cute (and WELL-hung) russians I met on vacation a few months back. After the third or fourth one, my asshole was stretched out, as you might imagine. The next one up made a joke in russian (I don't speak russian but everyone was laughing) and then proceeded to piss in my gaping asshole! I was surprised at first but it actually felt pretty good.

homonyms (2)

vlm (69642) | about a year and a half ago | (#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.

Re:homonyms (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42650659)

people make what...u got my pont.

Re:homonyms (1)

I Mean, What (2778851) | about a year and a half ago | (#42651205)

"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.

Re:homonyms (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42651469)

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.

Re:homonyms (1)

vlm (69642) | about a year and a half ago | (#42651735)

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 REALLY makes it a textbook is daring to demand a price over $100. I can dig that. Or even whip out the "Grok".

I have no useful /. car analogy other than maybe re-enacting the classic "how many slashdotters does it take to change a light bulb?"

Re:homonyms (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42652439)

in that case, would likely be an autocorrect issue....

Re:homonyms (1)

Genda (560240) | about a year and a half ago | (#42651531)

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 for which lower division work hasn't changed much. I mean excluding material science, inorganic chemistry looks pretty much the same since I took it, the books now are just prettier. Student should have a wide selection of texts from free to expensive. They should also have limited access to online copies served by the school for free. Drop the price of the book and give teachers a bonus for every textbook written, the bonus being contigent on the quality of the book.

That or maybe supplement the Khan Academy with rich media online text books that mirror standard class studies so student can read but also play with the periodic table directly and understand why the rows and columns, get a quick history lesson of how it all happened, listen to Tom Lehrer sing "The Elements [] ". We have such dramatically better tools now to feed curiosity and encourage young minds to blossom, we should take every opportunity. We also MUST remove the burden of education from students and their parents, at least for basic state universities. Sure charge an arm and a leg for an Ivy League education, just remember these schools have also become places of indoctrination to the very ideology that has gotten us in the jam we're all currently faced with and a slightly more free and open education combined with critical thinking and learning how to learn, might prove a marked advantage to the future of our society and race. People ask how we can afford this, and I wonder how can we not. For every thousand dollars we invest in education the educated person returns it a hundred fold back to society in increased tax base, skilled labor and enhanced capacity to participate in the American Economy. So you can save your money now and pay big time later or you can invest wisely in the future of our children.

Re:homonyms (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42655945)

Any other homonyms? could only find that one...

Fits into society (3, Interesting)

gmuslera (3436) | about a year and a half ago | (#42650639)

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.

Re:Fits into society (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42650715)

finally...someone makes a good point.

Re:Fits into society (2)

Daniel Dvorkin (106857) | about a year and a half ago | (#42650759)

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, and laws to enforce those codes.

OTOH, yes, we obviously have to adapt to changing conditions. In general, as far as changes in technology goes, I'd say our morals should change the slowest, our ethics the fastest, and our laws at a pace somewhere in between.

Re:Fits into society (2)

gmuslera (3436) | about a year and a half ago | (#42650969)

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 the owner, could put you in jail for many years or be sued for millons (and it happened already, several times). By now morals and ethics are adapting, while laws are clueless or used as a form of opression. Maybe Paul Graham [] put it better.

The Captain Obvious review.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42650681)

"A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal, and Ethical Issues for Computing Technology ... takes a broad look at the social, legal and ethical issues around technology"

Wow. How far into the book did you have to get to come up with that summary?

Re:The Captain Obvious review.. (1)

tgeller (10260) | about a year and a half ago | (#42653311)

I was going to write this.

Worst. Lede. Ever.

Re:The Captain Obvious review.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42668623)

other than that Mrs. Lincoln.....
this is the what!

Oblig. (2)

PPH (736903) | about a year and a half ago | (#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."


a bit steep (1)

HogGeek (456673) | about a year and a half ago | (#42650743)

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

Seems a bit steep, no?

Re:a bit steep (1)

Dahamma (304068) | about a year and a half ago | (#42651343)

Almost unethical, even...

Re:a bit steep (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42655679) so?

Re:a bit steep (1)

Dahamma (304068) | about a year and a half ago | (#42659591)

It was a joke, see the book title.

Actually, requiring *your* textbook for *your* class and making students pay over $80 for it has always seemed a bit shady (but common) to me. I did have a couple of professors supply their book as bound lecture notes (which is how many of these textbooks begin) for about 1/5 of the textbook cost, though, so if you own the copyright you can make things more affordable to your students...

Great title (1)

Improv (2467) | about a year and a half ago | (#42650789)

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

Re:Great title (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42655989)

dont judge a book by its title....poetic license taken.

what about THE BOOK and not THE TITLE...?

hmm (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42650809)

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

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

Re:hmm (1)

steveg (55825) | about a year and a half ago | (#42663939)

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.

Re:hmm (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42668757)

and yer point?

pandora and prometheus are same story (1)

decora (1710862) | about a year and a half ago | (#42650871)

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 had his own technology....

Re:pandora and prometheus are same story (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42659421)

It is all a myth what?

Required Book at University (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42650913)

This book is used in our introduction to Computer Science class. It's a decent enough book but it really annoys me how intellectual property and copyright laws are just assumed to be ethical. They're not. It's the law but is not by any means a settled issue. Intellectual property needs to die.

From a student's PoV (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42650967)

I have owned this book for about 3 years now since I had to use it for a Computer Science Ethics class in college. It, like other ethics books stays general and rarely takes a stance on a topic. The sections at the end of each chapter are useful to seed in-class discussions. Overall it is decent for the subject matter, but I rate Ethics pretty low in college priorities considering how subjective the content is.

Re:From a student's PoV (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42661269)

No, you did not own 'this' book. As the forth edition come out a few months ago.

you must have owned the previous edition.

Inevitable (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42654113)

Many of us are quite aware of the catastrophically potent consequences of that powerful free data processing and near-instant high-bandwidth communication for everyone brings. Indeed, many of us are racing to develop software that will underscore these consequences to people who have not pondered the computer revolution so deeply. As time goes on it will be difficult to find any stable middle ground between an outright ban on technology for individuals and complete information anarchy.

Sara Baase last updated her web site in 2008 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42655719)

If this is Baase's site:

Do we want to take technology advice from someone who hasn't updated her site in over 5 years?

Re:Sara Baase last updated her web site in 2008 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42656053)

Old site.

Check out the updated one:

She updated this last week.

Homage to the 60's (1)

cellocgw (617879) | about a year and a half ago | (#42658533)

"Steal this book."

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

Former student (2)

Card Zero (1126075) | about a year and a half ago | (#42658597)

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.

Re:Former student (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42659539)

wow...a first-hand bad mouthing...might be a slashdot first!

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