From the Editors

Sometimes, the world can seem somewhat bleak. Especially in the era of COVID-19, it can be difficult not to turn on the news or open Twitter and not to feel as if we are surrounded exclusively by chaos and catastrophe. In having the honor of being VCE’s editor-in-chief in my last semester at USC, I have the opportunity to look not to the disasters of the present, but to the engineers of the future and their visions of a brighter tomorrow. While the ethical dilemmas they will be tackling in many cases expose some of humanities’ more disappointing failures, their analysis and suggestions for improvement leave me optimistic that the next generation of engineers will lead the world toward a more ethical state.

We begin with Noah Samuels’ exploration of the value of the user and a digital world in which rather than an app being the product, companies are selling their users’ attention and information. While his discussion of the value of data focuses on the ethicality of its collection, Jonathan Li looks into the ways that data is being used. Predictive analytics are being leveraged by a number of metropolitan police departments as they seek to isolate high risk neighborhoods and fight crime more efficiently. But is the use of biased data leading to discriminatory policing practices?

Then, Bram Lim explains how a new form of warfare is evolving in the digital world. While cyberwarfare certainly involves a lower mortality rate, does this new form of combat actually provide an ethical alternative to traditional war?

Finally, Amber Chow and Audrey Kono dive into the increasingly urgent area of climate change and climate justice. Chow’s discussion of responsibility in remediation explores the inequitable effects of climate change and the countries who should be taking more responsibility for fighting it than others. Kono explores water scarcity, and the potential solution that has been discovered in desalination plants. However, while this process may provide clean water for humans in need, do the negative effects on the environment and wildlife in the area make it an amoral solution?

The world is an increasingly complex place, and I sincerely hope that these articles provide some opportunities to look past the problems and begin to uncover solutions in the way only an engineer can. With that, it is my pleasure to introduce the final issue of Volume 5 of Viterbi Conversations in Ethics. Happy reading!

Isabel Brieler, VCE Editor-in-Chief

  • Now That We Have Your Attention
    In a traditional business model, companies provide a product or service to their customers. However, in today’s digital marketplace, users of a company’s app, website, or game are not the true customers. While users are able to access these apps for free, companies can then sell those users data and attention to advertisers and other interested parties. But in a world now dominated by surveillance capitalism, is the use of user data exploitation, or just good business? Tech companies must increase transparency of how they plan to collect and use data, and developers should refuse to use manipulative or addictive methods in order to capitalize on users.
  • Pitfalls of Predictive Policing: An Ethical Analysis
    Predictive policing is a police tactic that uses computer algorithms to predict where crime is likely to occur. This tactic, which has been used in cities like Los Angeles, allows the police to deploy more officers to “high-risk locations.” However, predictive policing violates the ethics of consequentialism and the ethical frameworks of justice and fairness by disproportionately targeting low-income neighborhoods and high-minority areas with increased police activity. Although boosting police patrols can deter crime in some cases, they also make people feel wary and frightened. Predictive policing is an unethical police tactic and should be further regulated or used in other manners. Crime should not be prevented by police-generated fear.
  • Cyberwarfare Conundrum: An Ethical Analysis
    Traditional armed conflict is subject to conventions that govern the way wars are fought and protect those who are not involved. However, thus far, there are no equivalents to the Hague and Geneva Conventions of war for the cyber world, where artillery and explosives are replaced by viruses and malware. Therefore, this paper argues that it is imperative to establish international regulations to keep cyberwarfare ethical, based on the foundations provided by existing warfare conventions.
  • The Ethical Implications of Climate Change and Future Inequality We Can’t Ignore
    The impacts of climate change will disproportionately impact disadvantaged groups on regional, national, and international scales. The skewed vulnerabilities that arise from exposure to natural disasters, susceptibility to damage, and community ability to recover fuel the need to examine the ethical implications of producing greenhouse gas emissions in bulk for luxury purposes. As engineers are the creators of industrial processes, the responsibility an engineer holds towards themselves, the community they serve, and the future must be displayed through accountability for the cumulative impacts of each action.
  • Nature is Not a Means to an End: Applying Environmental Ethics to Desalination
    Global water demand is rising, but our water supplies are decreasing. Desalination offers an unconventional source of fresh water to meet the needs of the world’s growing population. However, the process harms marine organisms and their natural environments, and exacerbates the threat of climate change. Examination of environmental ethics suggests that prioritizing concerns about environmental and community health is vital to the successful establishment and operation of desalination plants.