Computing and Global Change

Fall 2020

Course Info

CSCI 490 (directed study)
M/W noon-2pm, via Zoom
Instructor: Barath Raghavan
Office Hours: Mon 11am-noon


In this course we will aim to understand computing's potential for good (and harm) in the context of monumental social, ecological, economic, and other forces that are reshaping our world today. In teams of two, you will do a self-defined, concrete, semester-long independent project with a goal of real impact. We will examine national- and global-scale challenges and more specific subproblems, and relevant technology projects. Many of the hardest social and ecological problems are intertwined in complex ways, as we will explore. While we will examine a few conventional engineering ethics topics, our aim is much broader: we will start with fundamental social and ecological challenges and then consider what role, if any, technology might play in responding to them. One of our aims will be to differentiate between nice-sounding-but-ineffective tech-for-good solutions and those that have a chance for real impact. As a result, we will take a systems perspective -- to trace root causes and find the right place(s) to make lasting change.

Course Structure

The course will involve discussion, presentation, and group work during class. For the first four weeks of the semester the assignments will primarily be readings, but will quickly transition to project work thereafter.


The reading spans a wide range of topics and provides diverse perspectives on technology and global change. A number of assigned readings and videos also examine societal challenges to provide context and deepen our understanding of the role of technology in society; these assigned readings and videos can be of a dark nature as they discuss problematic aspects of society. Each week's reading is accompanied by a short response assignment, due by 7pm the day before each class meeting so that everyone is prepared for in-class discussion (for example, the reading response for Wed 8/26 is due 7pm Tue 8/25). Each student will maintain a Google Doc for their reading responses, and should add each reading response to that document, with newer responses at the top of the doc; the doc should be shared only with the professor and TA.

It's highly recommended that you read each week's readings in the order listed -- each reading builds on previous ones.


In teams of two, you'll work on a semester-long independent project, culminating in a system that your team will build, test, and demonstrate to the class. You will scope out a real-world challenge that you want to address; articulate what makes solving this challenge important to society; examine possible avenues for addressing the challenge; identify key human, non-human, technological, and non-technological elements and factors in the challenge; define metrics and evaluation criteria for a possible response; and lay out milestones for the project you will develop to address the challenge. While it will be up to your team of two to meet the milestones, others in the course will be your sounding boards, beta testers, and partners in building something real, with an aim of having the project live on after the semester is over.

Projects won't have a particular form or use any specific technology -- each project will be problem dependent and it will be up to you to explore options, learn relevant technologies, and implement your project. At a high level, the first milestone will require deeply understanding and then describing the problem being solved and carving out a specific piece where computing/technology will be useful. Later milestones will depend on the project, but may include an initial prototype of software and/or hardware for the project, alpha tests with others in the class, beta tests with real users outside of class, engagement with community groups, policymakers, nonprofits, businesses, and/or other stakeholders, etc. If things go well, each project could be the kernel of something much bigger, such as a new organization (for example, a nonprofit, startup, B corp, or community group) or research initiative through which the work will live on and grow in impact.


Details of grading will be provided in class. Grades will be determined based upon the project and weekly responses to readings as follows:

70% Project (10% for each of 4 milestones, 30% for final deliverable)
30% Weekly responses


Date Reading Assignment
M 8/17
W 8/19
  • Why did you sign up for this course? (2 paragraphs)
  • What would Toyama and Silberman ask one another; how would they reply? (2 paragraphs)
  • What would Murphy and Anderson ask one another; how would they reply? (2 paragraphs)
M 8/24
  • What would Diamond and Meadows ask one another; how would they reply? (4 paragraphs)
  • What would Tufekci and Silberman ask one another; how would they reply? (2 paragraphs)
W 8/26
  • What would King and Winner ask one another; how would they reply? (2 paragraphs)
  • What large-scale (global/national) challenges worry you, and why? (2 paragraphs)
  • What large-scale (global/national) challenges interest you, and why? (2 paragraphs)
M 8/31
  • What would Mishra and Chapman ask one another; how would they reply? (4 paragraphs)
W 9/2
  • Propose three project ideas (two paragraphs each: one paragraph each on the challenge and one paragraph each on your project).
  • What would Graham, Chapman, or Hemenway ask about each idea; how would you reply? (1 paragraph for each idea)
M 9/7
- -
W 9/9
  • What would the Ethical OS authors ask the critics; how would they reply? (1 paragraph)
  • Describe how you are planning to follow Graham's advice from patterns 7 (Lots of Little Things), 8 (Start with Something Minimal), and 9 (Engage Users) from this week's essay (one paragraph per pattern).
  • Describe your four project milestones (3 paragraphs each, one for goal, one for deliverable, and one for metrics/evaluation).
  • Describe your proposed project in detail (2 paragraphs on problem, 2 paragraphs on project idea, 2 paragraphs on technology, 2 paragraphs on societal impact).
  • For each of Meadows's 12 leverage points, describe a possible "change" responsive to the problem you are working on (2-3 sentences per leverage point "change").
  • Situate your project in the current historical moment, leveraging what Gandhi, King, and Winner describe (4 paragraphs)
M 9/14 - -
W 9/16
  • Describe 3 economic arrangements and/or services and/or goods that might be re-evaluated in light of the readings. (1 paragraph each)
  • Describe 3 possible economic arrangements for your project (in groups). (1 paragraph each)
M 9/21 -
W 9/23 -
M 9/28 - Milestone 1: Progress update.
W 9/30 -
M 10/5 Guest: Neha Kumar, Georgia Tech -
W 10/7 Guest: Alex Spangher, USC -
M 10/12 The Thing from the Future -
W 10/14 Guest: Vineet Pandey, Harvard -
M 10/19 Guest: Bill Tomlinson, UC Irvine -
W 10/21 Guest: Jay Chen, ICSI -
M 10/26 - -
W 10/28 Project Updates -
M 11/2 The Thing from the Future -
W 11/4 Narratives -
M 11/9 Guest: Joyce Havstad, University of Utah -
W 11/11 Project Updates -