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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Cheating and imaginary property, Part One

David Pogue has written a fascinating article about cheating and intellectual property — or imaginary property, as some call it. Pogue is a technology writer, but his article is aptly entitled “The Generational Divide in Copyright Morality.” Nevertheless, technology has a lot of impact on the moral issues he discusses, such as whether it’s all right to download a movie for which you haven’t paid.

Pogue reluctantly acknowledges that the issues aren’t as clear-cut as he had once thought:
Readers fired back with an amazingly intelligent array of counterexamples: situations where duplicating a CD or DVD may be illegal, but isn’t necessarily wrong. They led me down a garden path of exceptions, proving that what seemed so black-and-white to me is a spectrum of grays.
As a result, he concocted a whole spectrum of cases, ranging from borrowing a CD from the library — Hands up if you think that’s wrong! What? Nobody? — to making a personal backup copy of a disc that you’ve bought all the way to the aforementioned illegal download — Hands up if you think that one’s wrong.

I would expect to see a lot of hands this time. So did Pogue, who generally sees more and more hands raised as his cases get more and more questionable. But, he reports, a recent audience of 500 college students produced only two who agreed that it was wrong to make an illegal download of a copyrighted movie for which they hadn’t paid! What’s up with that? Pogue assumes that it’s a generational divide, and maybe he’s right. Probably the issue extends far beyond intellectual property to other forms of cheating. A reader named Bill Shepherd posted an interesting comment on Pogue’s article:
It’s not just music and movies. I used to teach a college course. One day I stepped out of the room while they were taking a test. Later in the day I received a couple of reports from disgruntled students, saying that as soon as I left, a number of people pulled out cheat sheets and opened textbooks in broad daylight. You might think the reporters were showing moral backbone, but it turned out that most of them were more concerned that they would be penalized by the cheating of others, not that the others were cheating per se.

The course? Ethics.
This anecdote is no surprise to me. It’s why I no longer give take-home tests. In fact, I am astonished that there are any universities left that still give unproctored exams, though there clearly are some — like Princeton, where “students trust each other enough to proctor their own exams.” And of course there was the famous 2001 cheating scandal at the University of Virginia, which has had an honor code even longer than Princeton: “Under trees and on benches, on a beautiful spring day, lone figures scrawled their answers in blue books, with teachers trusting that students would not peek into textbooks, steal solutions from the Internet or seek help from friends,” according to a New York Times article.

So, what does all this have to do with technology? The common answer, which I suspect is correct, is that technology has made it so much easier to cheat that many more people do it. And then they think it’s OK. Sure, there’s no logical connection that would say it’s more ethical because it’s easier, but that’s probably the reality. The most recent cheating episode at Weston High School illustrates the point: seniors taking a proctored test surreptitiously used their cell phones to text their friends (who were in the cafeteria or elsewhere) and get help on specific questions. Teenagers all seem to be able to touch-type on their phones, so they can appear to be looking at their own test papers, and a mere glance at the phone later on would be enough to read the answer. Surely some of these students thought their actions were wrong, but just as surely most of them didn’t think so, and it was merely the technological ease that let them cheat; old-fashioned methods would be either too cumbersome or too liable to be caught. Strict enforcement of the ban on cell phones in classrooms is the current solution, but that’s not going to change hearts and minds.

More on this issue later on...

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