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Gary Chapman, Internet Ethicist, Dies at 58 - NY Times

By KATIE HAFNER Published: December 17, 2010

Gary Chapman, an educator, writer and widely recognized expert on the impact of high technology on society and public policy, died Tuesday while on a kayaking trip in Guatemala. He was 58.

The cause was a heart attack, his family said. Further details were not immediately available.

For seven years Mr. Chapman was the executive director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit group concerned with the impact of technology on society. Under his guidance, it grew into an influential organization with international reach.

Gary ChapmanIn the 1980s, the group cast a particularly skeptical eye on the application of computers to decision-making in military systems and took a public stand against the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars.

Mr. Chapman was on the faculty of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin. He also founded and directed the school’s 21st Century Project, which studies the social implications of information technology and telecommunications.

Although not a computer scientist himself, and neither a champion nor a foe of technology per se, Mr. Chapman gave voice to many leaders in the field who struggled with the ethical implications of new technology.

“He helped many distinguished computer scientists articulate their concerns,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington and a longtime colleague of Mr. Chapman’s. “He promoted an important dialogue between leaders in computer science and the broader public. It’s part of a very important tradition, and he played a key role.”

Closer to home, Mr. Chapman also worked to bridge the so-called digital divide, the gulf between those with access to technology and those without. In 1995, his 21st Century Project helped bring computers and the Internet to low-income areas of Austin.

“He made many people stop and ask hard questions about technology,” Mr. Rotenberg said. “Not just ‘Is it cool?’ but ‘Does it make our lives better, or more just? And does it make our world more secure?’ ”

Gary Brent Chapman was born on Aug. 8, 1952, in Los Angeles. In the mid-1970s he was a medic with the Army Special Forces.

After his military service Mr. Chapman attended Occidental College in Los Angeles, graduating in 1979 with a degree in political science. He was a Ph.D. student at Stanford University’s political science program in 1984, when he left to take the job at Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

“When word went around in the community of peace activists that we had hired a former Green Beret, eyebrows were raised everywhere,” said Severo Ornstein, a computer scientist and a founder of the organization. But through Mr. Chapman’s careful and original thinking on a variety of issues, Mr. Ornstein said, “the raised eyebrows were quickly defused.”

With David Bellin, Mr. Chapman edited “Computers in Battle: Will They Work?” (Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

As a senior lecturer at the University of Texas, Mr. Chapman taught graduate courses in technology policy. “Over the years, Gary mentored dozens of students, who went on to work in key policy areas,” said Sherri Greenberg, a fellow faculty member.

Mr. Chapman’s survivors include his wife, Carol Flake Chapman; his father, Arthur S. Chapman, and stepmother, Pierrette Chapman, of Solvang, Calif.; and a half-brother, Duane Chapman, of Bakersfield, Calif.

Although Mr. Chapman was known to colleagues as soft-spoken, he could be passionate when arguing a point. Eric Roberts, a computer science professor at Stanford, recalled that at a C.P.S.R. board meeting on the Stanford campus in 1988, Mr. Chapman banged his fist on the table to make his case. “Just at that moment we had an earthquake,” Professor Roberts said, “and we all thought, ‘He commands forces greater than we know.’ ”

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