Home Blog Faculty spotlight: Dr. Michael Zimmer, Director of Center for Data, Ethics, and Society

Faculty spotlight: Dr. Michael Zimmer, Director of Center for Data, Ethics, and Society

March 21, 2022
Marquette Computing Professor, Dr. Michael Zimmer

“The hardest technology to deliver is peace.”

Do you know who made that provoking statement? No, it wasn’t any world leader. Not Bill Gates or Oprah or any other famous philanthropist. Think: Silicon Valley. Mark Zuckerberg? Extremely close. In fact-- you could say it’s uncannily close. That quote was in fact generated by the Zuckerbot, a predictive keyboard made by the media organization, The Guardian, in partnership with Botnik Studios, a machine entertainment company. The team created the bot for a mock interview after Zuckerberg’s announcement of Facebook’s rebrand to “Meta.” How do you make a Zuckerbot sound so similar to the real person? You train it on two years of accumulated transcripts of Zuckerberg’s public utterances.1 These records can be found in a digital archive, The Zuckerberg Files, at Marquette University with thousands of others thanks to Michael Zimmer, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science.

“The idea for The Zuckerberg Files started back in 2010 when I was chatting with colleagues at the Association of Internet Researchers’ annual conference in Sweden about how it would be great to study the way Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg talks about privacy, and whether his rhetoric has changed over time as the platform has evolved and controversies increased,” explains Dr. Zimmer. “I started gathering copies of his speeches and interviews, and it dawned on me that this could be a useful archive for other scholars to study. So, in 2013 I launched the digital archive of everything Zuckerberg has said in public, and I’ve been working hard keeping it updated ever since.”

The archive presently houses over 1,400 transcripts and more than 200 video files and is available for anyone to download, analyze, and scrutinize. Dr. Zimmer reports that it’s been a thrill to see the archive being used in scholarship, news reporting, and even by artists. Last year the New York Times wrote a piece using the archive that analyzes the speaking style used by Zuckerberg and popularized by many modern thought-leaders, which the Times described as “unpolished speech exhibited in contexts where polish is customary,” and, “by default,” one of the defining communication styles of this time.2 “In the end,” says Zimmer, “I do think we’re able to learn more about Zuckerberg and Facebook’s role in our society based on this ability to analyze and scrutinize his public remarks.”

A multifaceted approach to data and computer science

As a privacy and data ethics scholar as well as an educator of the next generation of computing workers and data scientists, Dr. Zimmer doesn’t just keep a close eye on the words of one social media founder but the trends and patterns appearing across the field of technology. “It is hard to imagine any position in software development, data analysis, or IT project management – especially in our current environment – which doesn’t in some way intersect with professional, ethical, legal, security or social issues and responsibilities,” Zimmer posits. “Today’s data and computing professionals are regularly confronted with new opportunities, new threats, new technologies and platforms that demand attentiveness to ethical and social implications.”

Dr. Zimmer, who received a Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing from the University of Notre Dame before going on to earn a Master’s in Media Ecology and a Ph.D. in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University, recognizes that his background might be atypical for a computer science department but says he thrives on interdisciplinary collaboration. “My early work led me to think more broadly about how technologies have social and ethical implications for society. From an early focus on digital privacy, my research trajectory seemed to follow wherever the controversies soon sprang up: privacy on Google; concerns over Facebook and social media; the emergence of the Internet of Things and smart devices; and now big data and artificial intelligence,” Zimmer says. “I feel lucky to be able to bring my social science and human-centered methodological framework to the Department of Computer Science to help our students gain critical insights about the social and ethical dimensions of the tools and systems they will be building and implementing.”

Shaping the future of ethics in tech

Dr. Zimmer’s efforts to lead students into explorations of ethics got a recent lift with Marquette’s announcement of its new Center for Data, Ethics, and Society with Zimmer leading the way as center director. With a foundation built upon the university’s Catholic, Jesuit mission of service and social justice, the center will focus on confronting data ethics issues through “an applied and interdisciplinary approach to research, pedagogy and community engagement.”

Dr. Zimmer explains that data scientists and other professionals in the field of computing have long recognized the need to consider the impact of the tools and technologies they build have on humans in all sorts of manners but that recent changes seem to have compounded the critical need for ethically-aware data professionals. “There’s been an explosion in availability of large and detailed datasets, plus incredible breakthroughs in storage and processing power, all at increasingly lower cost.,” Zimmer points out, “This puts the power of “big data” and related data analytics, algorithmic decision-making, and machine learning, at the forefront of our current information revolution, and we’re moving so quickly there’s often little time to stop and think about the human dimension.”

The Marquette difference in computer and information science education

Students in Dr. Zimmer’s course, Social and Ethical Implications of Data (an elective option for the online Master of Science in Computer and Information Science), learn through exploration of ethical and social issues that emerge throughout the data lifecycle and consider these issues across contexts, including law enforcement, education, health care, and the workplace. “I design my courses to provide a comprehensive overview of the social, political, legal, and ethical implications of our increased data-driven society,” Zimmer explains. “Our courses on data ethics are designed to provide students with the necessary tools and perspectives to best address these concerns quickly and effectively before they become insurmountable,” Zimmer says, noting “Possessing these skills will make our graduates stand out among their peers.”

Marquette’s online M.S. in Computer and Information Science is 14th among Best Online Master's in Computer Information Technology Programs ranked by the U.S. News & World Report. The program also boasts a number five ranking for Services and Technologies and number three ranking for Student Engagement with a score of 96 out of 100 for student satisfaction and instructor responsiveness.3 Dr. Zimmer says that these rankings reflect the Marquette commitment to students overall. “One of the first things I noticed after joining Marquette was its focus on student success through a Jesuit lens of ‘teaching the whole person,’” he says. “I have worked at other institutions where the primary measures of success were getting students out the door. And while they were good at this, the focus was just on getting students graduated and into the workforce. But at Marquette, the Ignational pedagogical principles play out in how we design our programs, teach in the classroom, mentor and advise our students, and train our graduates to make a difference in the world. I truly feel these components of a Marquette education are critical for our students’ success.”

The online master’s in computer and information science from Marquette is a clear choice for those who want to make a difference in the future of technology. In our program you can select the coursework that’s relevant to you, whether you want to sharpen your skill sets for career growth or develop the knowledge and skills to change your career path. Choose our Information Assurance and Cyber Defense (IACD) specialization to gain traction in a field with tremendous growth potential. Learn from industry experts including Dr. Zimmer and discover how you can channel your interests into a rewarding career in information technology. Speak with an Admissions Advisor about what career opportunities and curriculum options might be right for you and apply today.