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3/7/2002
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First Person: Ethically, I Wasn't That Kind Of Teen--Was I?

In the words of the immortal Eliza Doolittle, "I'm a good girl, I am." Twelve years in Catholic school resulted in a sufficiently ethical character: I return excess change to cashiers, offer my seat to the elderly on crowded subways, and carefully sort my plastics for the recycling bin. And yet, in some dark part of my soul, I still admire Matthew Broderick's character in the 1983 movie WarGames--the guy who hacked into the school's computer network and raised his girlfriend's grade a few points.

Back then, the ethical implications of the unintended use of advanced technology were cut and dried. Those of us agonizing over derivatives and velocity equations in calculus class way back when may have applauded Broderick's prowess, but we knew such activity could seriously affect the grading curve most of us were counting on to pass. And Broderick's breaking into the Defense Department's computer system and nearly starting World War III--well, ethically speaking, that was, like, gag-me-with-a-spoon bad.

Of course, when Boy George and skinny neckties ruled, few of us even had access to a computer, never mind to the myriad technologies that are forcing this generation--and businesses--to seriously evaluate how such offerings open new possibilities at the same time they raise questions.

Take global positioning systems. Thanks again to my Catholic school upbringing, I was the perennially on-time teen-ager. If I told a friend I'd meet her on the corner of Queens Boulevard and Grand Avenue at 1 p.m., you can bet I'd be there by 12:50. Alas, not everyone was as conscious of time, and I spent many a cold day waiting for a buddy to finally show up. What I wouldn't have given for a GPS that would let me track my friend's whereabouts by her cell phone or wireless device (if those things had been common back then).

The adult in me recognizes the inherent intrusiveness of monitoring another person's whereabouts, but the potential mother in me realizes that respect for my teen-ager's privacy ends on Saturday night about an hour after he said he'd be home. The ability to turn technology to these ends might be a nightmare for a civil-rights lawyer, but it could be a godsend for concerned parents--and a business opportunity for some savvy wireless software entrepreneur.

During a recent visit to the Virgin Megastore in Manhattan, I pondered the issue of downloading free music off the Web. I haven't done that yet--and I can't say it's only because my home computer isn't technically capable. The adult in me realizes--as the teen-ager who traded cassette tapes with friends may not have--that helping myself to copyrighted music without paying for it deprives artists and record companies of royalties and revenue. But I balk at paying another monthly subscription fee (to add to my Internet fee, my cable-TV fee, my phone and electric bills, etc.) to a music service.

Technology, like so many other advances in civilization, forces a redefinition of what constitutes good behavior--and kids are often at the forefront of that movement because of their great comfort with change. That's not to say it's OK to use a good search engine to plagiarize a paper. But it does mean entire industries may need to readjust their thinking about how they respond to changes that challenge traditional ethics.

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