Cyber Dystopia


Topics in Societal and Ethical Impacts of Computer Technology

A Course at UIUC for Senior Undergraduate Computer Scientists. Taught by Camille Cobb in Spring 2022.

Instructor: Camille Cobb (

Time: Wed/Fri 2:00-3:15pm CT [An earlier version of this website incorrectly specified that the class meets Mon/Wed]

Online Location: Zoom link [Must be signed into UIUC Zoom to join; there is no waiting room, but it defaults are set to video being off and mic muted when you join.]

In-person Location: 1109 Siebel Center for Comp Science [We will tentatively start meeting in person after the first week of instruction. Week 1 is online only.]

Office Hours: Instructor will typically linger for up to ~30 minutes after class ends on Wednesdays. And by appointment -- contact instructor via Slack or email.

Slack Workspace: Link to join [Link expires approximately Feb 1, 2022; email the instructor if you need access after this.]

Schedule of readings and assignment descriptions & deadlines: Link to google sheet [Viewable by anyone with UIUC sign-in.]


CS464 Course Description

Topics selected from key current areas of impact of computer technology on aspects of society and ethics such as: freedom versus the rule of law in cyberspace; social discourse; privacy; livelihoods and automation; fairness; security; political change; business models; technology divide.

3 undergraduate hours. No graduate credit. May be repeated if topics vary. Credit is not given towards a degree from multiple offerings of this course, if those offerings have significant overlap, as determined by the CS department. Prerequisite: CS 225. One of CS 210 or CS 211 or ECE 316 or PHIL 316. One of CS 361 or STAT 400 or STAT 200. Restricted to students with senior standing.

Section Topics

Most university training in Computer Science focuses on technology advancement: writing more efficient programs, mining over bigger data, teaching a computer to more accurately distinguish a cat from a dog, and so on. The Cyber Dystopia course focuses instead on the downsides of such technology advancement. Course participants will explore history and context, characterize key problems, assess their severity, predict their future, speculate on how much of what we are facing is inevitable, and think about what steps might avoid or mitigate the most undesirable outcomes. This will be guided by reading and class discussion of recent works on the topic. Topics include:

  • Fictional cyber dystopias

  • Social discourse (everyday life)

  • Fairness (everyday life, but longer-term implications of tech)

  • Freedom and the rule of law (maybe not your life, but still how individual choices shaped the way tech had an impact on society & how the law reacted)

  • Business, capitalism, corporations (likely relevant to your future careers)

  • Cybersecurity & the impact of technology on war (i.e., between-country conflicts)

  • Fate of humanity (big-picture & long-term)

  • Taking action


The information revolution is bringing changes that are not always seen as positive to the people they affect. Computer automation leads to lost jobs, smartphone connectivity makes life uncomfortably non-stop, the Internet opens opportunities for cyber-warfare and the recruitment of terrorists on social media, improved data collection erodes privacy with increasingly effective profiling of individuals, “filter bubbles” create political dialogs where people hear only the opinions of others like themselves, state-sponsored hacks of online communications combine with the spread of false news to threaten the integrity of elections and the press, insurance companies monitor drivers of connected cars in increasing detail, young people become addicted to video games and social media that cause them to degrade in-person relationships, cryptocurrencies facilitate extortion of hospitals, and so on.

Despite all of this, there is a strong feeling that these and many similar changes are inevitable and that our efforts should be devoted to advancing, enjoying, and profiting from cyber technologies rather than restraining them. But do our efforts in this direction risk the emergence of a cyber dystopia in which many, perhaps most, people are significantly harmed by technology advances? Or are these trends just acceptable bumps on a road to a place that offers more that is good than bad? Should we change the path? Can we change it?

Learning objectives

Students who successfully complete this course should …

  • Be able to cite real-world adverse impacts of advances in computer technology

  • Be able to recall examples from fictional cyber dystopias and reflect on these imagined futures in terms of what ways are they realistic (or not) and the role that (science) fiction plays in societal views on technology

  • Learn to critically evaluate computer technologies and the discourse around these technologies, including technology they read about, interact with, and/or create

  • Develop strategies for reacting to dystopian (uses of) technologies they encounter (e.g., in everyday life, at work, etc.)

  • Cultivate skills for having group discussions and conversations about specific readings and topics

Class organization and assessment

Reading and class discussion (30% of grade)

  • Semi-structured discussion

  • Prompts available in advance

  • 4-5 students per class selected at random to kick off discussion on each prompt

Written assignments (40% of grade)

  • 5 total submissions, corresponding to the topics we cover

  • 2 parts for each assignment:

    1. Complete your assignment and submit it in the appropriate Slack channel where your classmates can see (usually due Fridays at 2pm)

    2. Respond to at least 3 of your classmates' submissions (usually due the following Wednesday by the start of class)

Final term paper (30% of grade)

  • Two page proposal due April 8

  • Six to eight page term paper due May 11

  • Two options:

    1. Expand on a written assignment from Topic 1

    2. Term paper on a topic of your choice; the traditional assignment from previous offerings of this course.

  • More details in the course schedule and on Slack

Policies specific to this instructor / course

Late work policy and evaluation criteria:

Full description here, including per-assignment evaluation criteria.

Short version:

  • Lose 1 point if >4 hours late, lose 2 points if >4 days late

  • Late policy not meant to stigmatize punish, or create extra work; instead meant to keep us accountable to each other, enhance class community, give instructor predictable timeline for grading

  • Evaluation criteria not meant to restrict you, but there to make the assignments easier

  • Make up for lost points by engaging with old assignment submissions on Slack & making connections to newer course content

Inclusion and access in class

Inclusion and access are a priority in my classes. Below is a non-exhaustive list of what this means:

  • I expect you to be respectful of each other, and I expect you to speak respectfully about the authors of and people quoted in articles/books we read. This does not mean you have to agree or can't critique them, of course.

  • I will seek to be thoughtful and intentional about the language I use, and I expect you to do the same. We’re all learning, so we may make mistakes. Please correct yourself, each other, and me, and please interpret corrections as a form of kindness.

  • If you need accommodations to participate in class, complete an assignment, etc., please let me know.

  • We will introduce ourselves to each other during the first class, but if at any point I’m using the wrong name or pronouns for you or saying your name incorrectly, please let me know; I want to get it right.

  • Some of the class materials will address sensitive topics. I apologize that I may not have the capacity to explicitly add content warnings to the schedule in advance. If there are particular content warnings you would benefit from, please let me know ASAP and I will prioritize these. I want you to take care of yourself. If this means not finishing a reading or skipping a class session, that is ok. If you do this, you can simply send me an email or Slack message in advance that states “I am going to skip this reading and class due to the sensitivity of the topic.” You shouldn’t feel any pressure to give me any more details. But consider whether you could partially participate if we structure discussion in a specific way. For example, if there are several readings for a single class period, we could enforce a rigid schedule for switching between discussion of each so that you don’t have to sit out of the whole class.

  • I will make an effort to ensure that the combined cost of course materials is comparable to (or significantly less than) a typical textbook. Many course materials are available online for free. I hope to obtain a couple of physical copies of the books that I could lend out. If you know in advance that this is something you need, please let me know ASAP, and I will prioritize this.

  • I will not strictly enforce deadlines or penalize you for late submissions within reason. Please do give me a heads up if you know your submission will be late. You do not need to tell me the reason; I trust you. If habitually late submissions start to cause issues with grading or perceived fairness, we'll set up a time to talk about it; I hope this isn't a problem.

The ongoing pandemic and meeting in person

  • We are still in a pandemic. None of us are doing great. I get that, and I am factoring it into how I design and run the course. I do not want you to compromise on your physical or mental health for this class.

  • In-person class sessions:

  • We will follow university policies regarding in-person instruction.

  • If you are not wearing an appropriate mask in class that covers your nose and mouth, I will ask you to leave.

  • If you need to eat or drink during class, please leave the room to do so.

  • If you are sick and potentially contagious, stay home. I don't care if it is Covid or something else, and you don't need to present proof to me in order to stay home. Try to give advance notice if you'll miss class, though.

  • Virtual class sessions:

  • Video policy: I recognize that virtual classes can have possible privacy implications for everyone. Because of this, I do not have an official policy that anyone must have their video on for class. BUT please recognize that our class sessions will primarily consist of group discussion. When you speak up in class, it feels so much better to see people looking at you and nodding along (or making a confused facial expression if that's how they feel) than to see a screen filled with empty rectangles. So I do hope that many/most of you will usually have your video on.

  • Audio policy: It is important that you are able to contribute to the discussions in class. The best way to do this is to ensure that you are attending class from a relatively quiet place where you feel comfortable speaking out loud and that your microphone works.

  • Recording class sessions: I do not plan to record class sessions, because I don't want the existence of a record to impede your willingness to share opinions and thoughts. If there is consensus among students that a recording is desired, we can change this policy, but watching the recording would not be a replacement for regular synchronous participation in class.

  • Hybrid classes and remote participation when the class is meeting in-person

  • I haven't yet seen examples of hybrid discussion-based classes that run especially effectively (but I also haven't taken many classes during the pandemic). If you have had an instructor that did an especially good job integrating virtual and in-person class participation, please tell me more about how they did it. My current preference is that we would be only virtual rather than hybrid, but we'll figure this out together as the semester progresses.

Additional course policies

The following sections are provided verbatim by the University of Illinois and/or the CS department, and may be repetitive with other class syllabi; however, these statements contain important information and links to useful resources, so please read through them carefully.

Statement on CS CARES and CS Values and Code of Conduct

All members of the Illinois Computer Science department - faculty, staff, and students - are expected to adhere to the CS Values and Code of Conduct. The CS CARES Committee is available to serve as a resource to help people who are concerned about or experience a potential violation of the Code. If you experience such issues, please contact the CS CARES Committee. The Instructors of this course are also available for issues related to this class.

Anti-Racism and Inclusivity Statement

The Grainger College of Engineering is committed to the creation of an anti-racist, inclusive community that welcomes diversity along a number of dimensions, including, but not limited to, race, ethnicity and national origins, gender and gender identity, sexuality, disability status, class, age, or religious beliefs. The College recognizes that we are learning together in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, that Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous voices and contributions have largely either been excluded from, or not recognized in, science and engineering, and that both overt racism and micro-aggressions threaten the well-being of our students and our university community.

The effectiveness of this course is dependent upon each of us to create a safe and encouraging learning environment that allows for the open exchange of ideas while also ensuring equitable opportunities and respect for all of us. Everyone is expected to help establish and maintain an environment where students, staff, and faculty can contribute without fear of personal ridicule, or intolerant or offensive language. If you witness or experience racism, discrimination, micro-aggressions, or other offensive behavior, you are encouraged to bring this to the attention of the course director if you feel comfortable. You can also report these behaviors to the Bias Assessment and Response Team (BART) ( Based on your report, BART members will follow up and reach out to students to make sure they have the support they need to be healthy and safe. If the reported behavior also violates university policy, staff in the Office for Student Conflict Resolution may respond as well and will take appropriate action.

Academic Integrity

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Student Code should also be considered as a part of this syllabus. Students should pay particular attention to Article 1, Part 4: Academic Integrity. Read the Code at the following URL:

Academic dishonesty will result in a sanction proportionate to the severity of the infraction, with possible sanctions described in 1-404 of the Student Code ( Every student is expected to review and abide by the Academic Integrity Policy as defined in the Student Code: As a student it is your responsibility to refrain from infractions of academic integrity and from conduct that aids others in such infractions. A short guide to academic integrity issues may be found at Ignorance of these policies is not an excuse for any academic dishonesty. It is your responsibility to read this policy to avoid any misunderstanding. Do not hesitate to ask the instructor(s) if you are ever in doubt about what constitutes plagiarism, cheating, or any other breach of academic integrity.

Disability-Related Accommodations

To obtain disability-related academic adjustments and/or auxiliary aids, students with disabilities must contact the course instructor and the Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) as soon as possible. To contact DRES, you may visit 1207 S. Oak St., Champaign, call 333-4603, e-mail or go to If you are concerned you have a disability-related condition that is impacting your academic progress, there are academic screening appointments available that can help diagnosis a previously undiagnosed disability. You may access these by visiting the DRES website and selecting “Request an Academic Screening” at the bottom of the page.

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

Any student who has suppressed their directory information pursuant to Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) should self-identify to the instructor to ensure protection of the privacy of their attendance in this course. See for more information on FERPA.

Religious Observances

Illinois law requires the University to reasonably accommodate its students' religious beliefs, observances, and practices in regard to admissions, class attendance, and the scheduling of examinations and work requirements. You should examine this syllabus at the beginning of the semester for potential conflicts between course deadlines and any of your religious observances. If a conflict exists, you should notify your instructor of the conflict and follow the procedure at to request appropriate accommodations. This should be done in the first two weeks of classes.

Sexual Misconduct Reporting Obligation

The University of Illinois is committed to combating sexual misconduct. Faculty and staff members are required to report any instances of sexual misconduct to the University’s Title IX Office. In turn, an individual with the Title IX Office will provide information about rights and options, including accommodations, support services, the campus disciplinary process, and law enforcement options.

A list of the designated University employees who, as counselors, confidential advisors, and medical professionals, do not have this reporting responsibility and can maintain confidentiality, can be found here:

Other information about resources and reporting is available here:

Statement on Mental Health

Diminished mental health, including significant stress, mood changes, excessive worry, substance/alcohol abuse, or problems with eating and/or sleeping can interfere with optimal academic performance, social development, and emotional wellbeing. The University of Illinois offers a variety of confidential services including individual and group counseling, crisis intervention, psychiatric services, and specialized screenings at no additional cost. If you or someone you know experiences any of the above mental health concerns, it is strongly encouraged to contact or visit any of the University's resources provided below. Getting help is a smart and courageous thing to do -- for yourself and for those who care about you.

Counseling Center: 217-333-3704, 610 East John Street Champaign, IL 61820

McKinley Health Center:217-333-2700, 1109 South Lincoln Avenue, Urbana, Illinois 61801

University wellness center:

Ethics Statement

This course considers topics involving personal and public privacy and security. As part of this investigation we will cover technologies whose abuse may infringe on the rights of others. As security professionals, we rely on the ethical use of these technologies. Unethical use may include circumvention of existing security or privacy measurements for any purpose, or the dissemination, promotion, or exploitation of vulnerabilities of these services. Exceptions to these guidelines may occur in the process of reporting vulnerabilities through public and authoritative channels. Any activity outside the letter or spirit of these guidelines will be reported to the proper authorities and may result in dismissal from the class and possible more severe academic and legal sanctions.

When in doubt, please contact the instructor for advice. Do not undertake any action which could be perceived as technology misuse anywhere and/or under any circumstances unless you have received explicit permission from the instructor.