cs492 - Spring 2017

Societal Implications of Computer Science

Analytic Themes: lecture notes

Daily Announcements

In this course groups of students do things together. My philosophy is that students don't mix enough at UW but stay too much within their own group(s). I try to run the class so that students mix as much as possible.

  1. I use uwaterloo.ca e-mail addresses, which are the ones the registrar gives me. Why?
  2. How the assignments are marked. You get two marks: On your assignment you will probably see two marks out of ten. The assignment mark is the sum of the two.
  3. Who got e-mail last night or this morning? How I will divide the class for the Wednesday/Friday seminars: randomly.
  4. How teams will be formed for doing RPEs.
    1. Prior to noon Friday, 12 May, students read RPE descriptions and choose one or more that appeals, checking availability in the chart.
    2. After noon on Friday, 12 May, students can send me requests by e-mail. I will process them first-come first-served, putting successful requests into the chart and notifying requesters about unsuccessful requests. Does anybody have objections if I put userids into this chart, which makes it easy for group members to contact one another?
    3. If you are unsuccessful try again.
    4. After class on Monday, 15 May I will accept no more requests, putting students into groups at random.
    When last I queried Quest there were 47 students registered, compared to 17 RPE teams. At those numbers we will have 13 teams of three and four teams of two.
  5. Piazza? "Desire to unlearn learn!" Vis-a-vis piazza how would you decide whether what you are giving to them is more valuable to you than what you are getting from them in return.
  6. Preferred names
  7. What about the final day of term, Monday, 24 July?

Analytic Themes

The themes on this page are a small subset of the rich interlocking set of rules, customs and institutions which hold together the extremely complex interrelationships that make society more or less work. The more I think about them the more I am amazed, not that they fail occasionally, but how infrequently they fail. What's here is not exhaustive, it's little more than a grab-bag of ideas that you can try out when you are not sure where to start thinking. You will find that most of these ideas are easy to apply to concrete things like tables, computers or clothing. Their power becomes apparent only when you apply them to abstract things like education, the standards that allow computers to connect using the internet, or social constructs like indecency.


Provision. Inside provision is the verb provide. To live we must have provided to us things like food, clothes, shelter, etc. Most of us get these things as a result of somebody working: work gives money; money purchases possessions we need or want. A few things, like the air we breathe, come to us otherwise, but for how long will this remain true. Before society existed everything came otherwise: we added our own effort -- catching the fish, or picking the fruit -- to what came otherwise and that's what we had.

Extreme examples. In the examples below

When you are a teen-ager private seems better: your parents have been choosing quasi-public goods for you since you were a baby. But a little thought shows that things are more complex. If we all choose for ourselves how does any one of us decide which side of the road to drive on? How do I choose to keep going to class when the weather is good? (We used to call that brain-washing.)

Ideas that go along with provision

Daily Announcements

  1. I use uwaterloo.ca e-mail addresses, which are the ones the registrar gives me. There are also edu.uwaterloo.ca e-mail addresses. How I have done addresses for RPEs.
  2. How the assignments are marked. Some of you received low marks on the style component of a1. If you did you should be seeing one of the writing assistance programs at the university. (I recommend the Writing and Communication Centre.)
  3. How teams will be formed for doing RPEs.
    1. After noon on Friday, 12 May, students can send me requests by e-mail. I will process them first-come first-served, putting successful requests into the chart. As of Saturday afternoon 1/3 of the class has requested and all have been successful.
    2. After class today I will put students into groups at random.
  4. Piazza? Should have something this week.


Extreme examples. SA: stone age; AA: agricultural age; MA: modern age.

Ideas that go along with provision. Usually these ideas are MA institutions designed to do formally what SA did informally.

Note that ideas that go along with provision are mostly attempts to provide the smooth solial relationships of a simple tightly bonded community within the complex, loosely bonded communities of modernity. This will be true for most of the other themes as well. I will try to provide examples where there is an obvious computer science angle.


Groups that desire coordinated action must make decisions that affect many people.

Extreme examples of decision-making methods

Ideas that go along with decision making

Disagreement -- carrot/stick

When a group shares the same environment, which occurs when working or playing together, or simply sharing the affordances of common space, it is common for disagreements to arise. At our best we negotiate by offering rewards and threatening punishments.

Forms of rewards

Extremes of punishment

Things that go along with disagreement


Many of the institutions of our society are engaged in producing things, making, assembling, modifying, etc. Sometimes a single individual can produce a complete thing, but not often. A professor may think that he or she works all alone in giving a course. But without a complement of other courses to produce a degree, a collection of students, a registrar to tell the students where to go and when, a classroom to go to, and on and on standing up and talking is not worth much. How workers work together to produce something is the subject of industrial organization, a subject found in economics and business degrees. How tightly together are those who co-operate to produce things is central to industrial organization.

Extreme examples.

Concepts that go along with production


Equilibrium Path-dependent Frustration

Temporal granularity

Some things happen fast, getting a fish, getting to school; some things happen more slowly, getting to a new camp, getting a degree; some things happen very slowly, getting grand-children. Things at different time scales interact; humans show strong recency effects.

Lengths of time

Months Generations Provisional acceptanceLong tails


Examples of sources of endowment

In a cultural environment that focusses so strongly on efficient cause -- Aristotle's four causes: material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, final cause -- it is very hard to identify inherent features of myself that caused me to be born to well-educated parents, in a first-world country.

Concepts that go along with endowment

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