CIRCA:Charles Ess


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Ess, Charles. Digital Media Ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009. Print.

This interdisciplinary text is noted as “the first textbook on the central ethical issues of digital media” and offers “global perspectives on the central ethical issues of digital media, including privacy, copyright, pornography and violence, and the ethics of cross-cultural communication online.” It consists of a foreword by philosopher Luciano Floridi, who attempts to capture the essence of Ess’s text praising its “topic,” “approach,” and “style” by referring to Schrodinger, arguing “this is a very sharp picture of a rather fuzzy subject” (ix). Floridi describes Ess’s ethical content as a marriage of “Eastern and Western ethical traditions” (ix) and praises his pluralistic approach as he successfully avoids falling into excessive relativism. Chapters two, four, and six may be of particular interest for our research purposes, covering issues of “ethical pluralism” or the “diverse cultural attitudes towards and understandings of individual and collective privacy in non-Western cultures” (xix); exploring the wariness of ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism which appear to be “embedded in the technologies of digital communication media themselves” and delegation of “the Other” (xx); and lastly, offering the illustration of multiple ethical (utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, etc.) and meta-theoretical frameworks (ethical relativism, ethical monism/absolutism, and ethical pluralism). Chapter one may also prove useful as a contemporary and comprehensive summary of the “central issues in the ethics of digital media” (1) to get us started.

What’s so special about this text:

  • Looks at broader issues (expands the audience to anyone and everyone who comes in contact with digital media) than those taken up by Information and Computing Ethics (ICE)
  • Not comprehensive but thought-provoking
  • Not didactic but interested in genuinely asking questions and anticipating/respecting the multiple ways they may be answers (pluralistic perspective) – working within a liberal framework
  • Interested in reaching a deeper or “better” understanding of “the Other” (xiii) as well as our own ethical frameworks in hopes of making better “judgments” (xiv) in terms of the social good (alluding to the philosophies of Socrates, Aristotle, and Confucius)

Chapters we may want to look into further:

  • Chapter 1: Central Issues in the Ethics of Digital Media
  • Chapter 2: Privacy in the Electronic Global Metropolis?
  • Chapter 4: Citizenship in the Global Metropolis
  • Chapter 6: Digital Media Ethics: Overview, Frameworks, Resources

Ess, Charles. “Introduction: What’s Culture Got to Do with It? Cultural Collisions in the Electronic Global Village, Creative Interferences, and the Rise of Culturally-Mediated Computing.” Culture, Technology, Communication: Towards an Intercultural Global Village. Eds. Charles Ess and Fay Sudweeks. New York: State University of New York Press, 2001. 1-50. Print.

In his introduction, Ess outlines the theories and case studies offered by this collective body of work as coming from three disciplinary camps: philosophy, cultural studies, and communication theory (3). He posits that the essays presented are united in their demonstration of three things. First is the inadequacy of any “single current theory” that explains or “predicts” the effects of computer-mediated communication (CMC) technologies in “diverse cultural contexts” (4). Second is an emphasis on the role of culture and gender in discussing CMC technologies. And lastly, the essays offer an alternative or “middle ground” to the extreme polarities that are clogging up American discussions of the digital space. Consequently, the volume is divided into three parts: theoretical approaches, theory/praxis, and cultural collisions and creative interferences (case studies). The volume also includes papers from “the first conference on Cultural Attitudes towards Technology and Communication (CaTaC’98) held in 1998 that was devoted to […] an interdisciplinary global dialogue” (19). Though there was an impressive international presence, Ess stresses the cultural limitations or absences as well (the lack of representation for China, France, and Arabic/Islamic nations). Ess also argues that the silence about religion in these papers is another limitation worth considering. Ess concludes his introduction with a discussion of cosmopolitanism and “boundary crossings” (25), emphasizing the role of “education and socialization” rather than “exposure to CMC technologies” in the development of a cosmopolitan society or “the intercultural global village” (26).

Readings to consider:

  • “Understanding Micropolis and Compunity” by Steve Jones (also presented at CaTaC 98 – Part 1: Theoretical Approaches)
  • “Electronic Networks and Civil Society: Reflections on Structural Changes in the Public Sphere” by Barbara Becker and Josef Wehner (Part 1: Theoretical Approaches)
  • “Language, Power, and Software” by Kenneth Keniston. (Part 3: Cultural Collisions and Creative Interferences on the (Silk) Road to the Global Village: India and Thailand)
  • “Global Culture, Local Cultures, and the Internet: The Thai Example” by Sorajj Hongladarom. (Also Part 3)
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