An Ethical Framework Throughout Technological Advances

Brigadier General Jeff Smith stands in front of the cadets in his history of information technology class.

Brig. Gen. Jeff Smith ‘79 teaches a class in the history of information technology.—VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

LEXINGTON, Va., Dec. 20, 2019—Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Smith ‘79 spent a career in the U.S. Army. The profession of arms, focused as it is on life and death matters, brings clarity to thinking, an appreciation for the importance of setting priorities, and often, great faith in one’s ideas of ethics and morals. But, as Smith shares with cadets, ethics in modern information technology is not always a black-and-white matter. It’s not a simple series of zeros and ones.

When cadets across various majors sign up to take Smith’s class called “History of Information Technology (Past, Present and Future),” there’s an expectation of learning about the telegraph, the early days of the internet and self-driving cars. That expectation is met with an eye-opening approach that focuses on the origins and ethics behind technology and what continuing advances can mean for the future.

Now retired from the U.S. Army and having concluded a four-year stint as deputy superintendent for academics and dean of the faculty at VMI, Smith has always had a way of mixing things that often don’t go together. He majored in both English and biology while at VMI. “To me, the combination epitomized the liberal arts education,” he said. He then went on to earn his master of science degree in national security form the National War College, and his doctorate in English literature from Princeton University. His 33-year Army career with the Signal Corps, “which is all about building networks,” Smith said, included several command and staff roles in various parts of the world.

His unique experiences have led him to where he is now. One of his assignments was deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Cyber Command, and at VMI he has led efforts to align curricula to account for national security and workforce needs in data analysis and cybersecurity. A minor in cybersecurity was introduced while he was dean.

While a CIS department course may not always make someone think of general life skills, he says, “I’ve always thought the purpose for the VMI education is to essentially introduce cadets to the grand themes in regards to human existence. I use the course to prepare cadets for the context in which they’re going to have to make some tough decisions with regards to new technologies and how we implement them.” 

It’s understandable that cadets, most of whom were born in the late 1990s, might think of information technology as something that began in their grandparents’ era. But Smith is quick to remind them that symbols, even those chiseled on the wall of a cave, form the backbone of information technology today. Smith provides context to day-to-day life and ties it back to prehistoric times.

“Symbolic thinking remains the core subject of this course,” he reminds students during an October class. “We’re comfortable with converting letters into words, under the rules of grammar, creating meaning. But our favorite kinds of meanings are held in stories, held in symbols, in art or artifacts, or in powerful capabilities and applications.”

Smith emphasizes the importance to creating an ethical framework early in life. It’s no secret that VMI cadets, just like students at any other school, will make tough decisions throughout their lifetime, and because of the technology at their fingertips, they really have the capability to do what they want to do. Smith says we often find ourselves being ruthless in our objectives, trying to gain authority and control, and taking technologies to their limits. 

Throughout the course, Smith touches on the broad movements in technology, noting that each movement not only solved a problem, or series of problems, but also creates new concerns. Each has enhanced capabilities, but also created new constraints. Smith shows students that, despite all the change through the generations, the threats and consequences basically remain the same.

“[Cadets] would prefer to be under surveillance than to be disconnected,” Smith said. Many of his students appear entranced by the capabilities of technology and what the future holds, but some still see much of it as science fiction. Each student in the course is ultimately tasked with defining his or her own ethical framework for the future, where the future can be noted as two weeks from now, or decades from now—that’s all up to the cadet.

The History of IT class is currently offered to 36 students per semester—three classes of 12 students. The small class size allows for more individual thought and dialogue.

When it’s all said and done, as Smith’s students move on to other courses and prepare to graduate, Smith says, “they’re part of this great path, and all paths lead to this extraordinary place where you can experience the universal emotions and feelings, and what it means to be human--to find love, to feel grief, to feel hunger, to feel joy. All professions give you that opportunity. You just have to know it’s your right to pursue them. You have to have the ethical courage and the moral courage to demand your right. That is my view, and I believe is the view of most people who teach at VMI. It’s about putting them in places where they can thrive. And once they graduate, they’ll find their way.”

-Maj. Michelle Ellwood


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