Santa Clara University

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The Cydent: Confronting New Technologies and New Responsibilities

Christopher Foster, an SCU senior majoring in economics, is a Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics for 2007-08. Continuing his research on technology and ethics, which he began at Oxford University under an SCU Honors Program scholarship, Christopher is also creating a comprehensive Web-based tool for Santa Clara students to learn about the unique problems that they face as cydents.

A new breed of student is revolutionizing our moral landscape. The cydent, or cyber student, is not merely a student equipped with new technological tools, but a new kind of student best described with a new name. The cydent consumes and produces information in unprecedented ways. And the cydent has multiple identities: on blogs, on social networking sites such as Facebook, and as avatars that function as semi-anonymous digital characters in the Second Life virtual world where Santa Clara recently unveiled its own campus.

Student Christopher Foster
Christopher Foster and his Second Life avatar explore the virtual Santa Clara University campus. The virtual “Santa Clara Island” takes advantage of technology to open campus to the world; avatars can visit re-creations of the new library, the de Saisset Museum, and the Mission Church.

The ethical challenges faced by this new kind of student are many and serious. Our moral responsibilities have traditionally developed based on what we know and what we can do. But new technology allows us to broaden our knowledge as well as our abilities beyond the familiar human scale, raising all kinds of questions. My research in this area began at Oxford University, where I studied under a Santa Clara University Honors Program scholarship for my junior year, and continues here on campus as a Hackworth Fellow. A Web site I am developing along with the Office of Student Life will be a one-stop place for students to explore these new ethical issues.

And there are so many questions: Can we hold technologies that replicate human intelligence responsible for actions with moral significance? Do social networking tools actually isolate us from each other in new ways? Issues of copyright infringement, dehumanization, and loss of privacy are part of daily campus life. Technology impacts every part of a cydent’s world: relationships, learning, entertainment, consumption, and identity.

There is no single, easy ethical perspective that can answer our questions. Nevertheless, by recognizing that we have created a new environment and by rethinking traditional models of ethics, we can take pivotal first steps. The cydent must learn that new tools bring new possibilities and responsibilities.

Santa Clara is seizing opportunities to incorporate cydents’ technological aptitude into creative pedagogic approaches. Michael Ballen, who teaches Liberal Studies 75: Technology and Learning, requires students to create avatars, or digital characters, who interact in the virtual environment of Second Life. Others, such as economics professor Helen Popper, now record lectures and post them online immediately after class.

My Web site aims to assist students in developing their own ethical perspectives with a variety of experts, case studies, and practical applications. By reaching students through the same medium I am challenging them to think deeply about, I hope to inspire critical thought about the role of technology in all aspects of student life. My project aspires to broaden the conversation about how changing what we can know and what we can do fundamentally alters how we think of ourselves.