As someone who grades memos in technical communication classes, I often find myself asking: Is the grammar correct? Is the information accessible? Is it organized and readable? If I answer yes to these questions, I could say that the memo is not only effectively written but also follows what technical communication scholar Stephen Katz would describe as the “ethic of expediency.” But can a memo be ethical in how efficiently it conveys information but unethical in how it impacts human lives? Is it important for information – and technology – to be both efficient and decent?
I can’t help but think of Mike Judge’s 1999 movie Office Space when Bill Lumbergh (played to perfection by Gary Cole) leans into Peter Gibbons’ cubicle to chastise him about forgetting to follow the new company policy of putting a cover letter on a TPS report. “Did you see the memo about this?” Lumberg asks in a cringey, monotone drawl. He blatantly disregards Peter’s apology and reasonable plan to fix the error, instead telling Peter that he’ll send him the memo again – even though Peter has it right in front of him.
As a dark comedy, Office Space makes us laugh with its relatability and only slightly exaggerated representation of a stifling work environment where efficiency is valued over human decency. History brings us some much darker examples, sans the comedy.
If children are trained to treat robots with respect, saying “Excuse me, Alexa” instead of “Hey, Alexa?”, would they in turn treat other humans more respectfully? This is one of the many intriguing questions that interests Dr. Qin Zhu, who was the first speaker in our STS Speaker Series.
On March 30th, Dr. Zhu gave a virtual campus talk on his research titled “Ritualizing Robots: A Confucian Approach to the Design of Ethical Human-Robot Interactions.” Dr. Zhu introduced a fundamental concept in STS: technologies reflect human values. For instance, a speed bump in a quiet neighborhood slows you down because people want to create a safe environment. If you do not slow down, your car may be damaged, which is both a physical and social punishment for disregarding the value of safety.
The same applies to robots: they are designed for a purpose, they embody human values, and how we interact with them says a lot about ourselves as moral beings. For instance, if you hit a robot, you may be more likely to hit another human.
We are happy to welcome Dr. Qin Zhu of the Colorado School of Mines as a guest speaker this week! On Tuesday, March 30th, from 7-8 pm (Mountain time), he will address ethical issues that arise from humans interacting with robots. He will draw on both Confucian ethics and research from human-robot interaction studies. For more, see the poster below! (Zoom link)