When computer science major Jennifer King looks around at her field she doesn’t see a niche specialty; she sees one of the most powerful influences in society today, from the instant communication of Facebook and Twitter to the complexities of computer-driven financial markets.
So when the University created a new certificate program that explores the links between information technology and society she was among the first to sign up.
“Coming from the perspective of a CS major, the certificate really underscores how interdisciplinary computer science is, and has to be, in our society today,” King said.
The Program in Information Technology and Society began enrollment this year and now has 13 students in majors ranging from computer science and electrical engineering to history and politics. The program is sponsored jointly by the Center for information Technology Policy and the Keller Center.
The program was also a perfect fit for Tom, a senior majoring in politics, who has taken numerous computer science classes and has been involved in the Center for Information Technology Policy because of his interest in Internet privacy and security. In fact, he did not want this article to use his full name because his understanding of digital privacy issues led him to try to control the use of his name on the Internet.
While he already knows he wants to find work after graduation at the intersection of information technology and policy, Tom said the existence of the program will be useful to sophomores and juniors who are still shaping their interests and studies. “It acts as a signpost,” he said. “It says ‘these courses may be of interest to you.’ And for students getting into the program now, it gives advice and encouragement about their independent work.”
Sharad Malik, director of the Keller Center and professor of electrical engineering, said the new program brings extra attention to a set of courses and faculty expertise that have been building for a long time. “The Wireless Revolution,” which is one of the courses that satisfies requirements of the certificate, has been a popular since the Department of Electrical Engineering began offering it in 2000.
In addition to helping students understand what courses and faculty advisers might offer good matches for their interests, the program also facilitates cross-disciplinary conversations between faculty members as they push into new research areas.
“It’s a reflection of what’s happened in society today,” said Malik, who is Princeton’s George Van Ness Lothrop Professor in Engineering and a professor of electrical engineering. “Technology is an important part of our lives and we need to keep looking at its interactions with society.”
In pulling together the list of courses that would satisfy requirements of the program, Ed Felten, who directs the Center for Information Technology Policy, said he was pleased to see how many already existed. “As always, there are lots of courses I wish I could take,” Felten said.
One new course that was developed specifically as an anchor for the certificate program is “Technology and Society,” taught by Professor of History Michael Gordin. This course was developed by Profs. Gordin, Angela Creager, Betsy Armstrong and Malik in a collaboration between engineering. history, sociology and the Woodrow Wilson School. The course, now in its second year, has already proven popular, with an enrollment of more than 80 students. The course examines the interaction of technology, politics, economics and culture as well as themes such as innovation, regulation, risk and ethics.
Through these lenses, students in the course look at issues such as “nuclear power and waste, genetically-modified organisms, regulation of the internet, medical mistakes, intellectual property, the financial crisis of 2008 and the post-fossil-fuels economy,” according to the course description.
The course exemplifies a wider theme in at Princeton, where fundamental research in science and technology can interact in interesting ways with the social sciences and humanities, said Malik. “Engineering is an integral part of a liberal arts education and its importance will only increase.”