Charles Ess

Professor emeritus
Image of Charles Ess
Visiting address Gaustadalléen 21 Forskningsparken 0349 Oslo
Postal address Postboks 1093 Blindern 0317 Oslo

I research, publish, and teach at the intersections of philosophy, computational technologies, applied ethics, comparative philosophy and religion, and media studies, with particular focus on: research ethics, Digital Religion, and virtue ethics in media and communication, specifically social robots.

My current work focuses on robots and AI / ML (machine-learning), continuing a life-long interest in computational technologies and their ethical, social, and political possibilities and impacts. For example, my “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Robots, sexuality, and the arts of being human,” (in M. Nørskov (ed.), Social Robots: Boundaries, Potential, Challenges, 57-79, Ashgate, 2016) summarizes some 30 years of work on enduring distinctions between what human beings and AI/robots are capable of, highlighting the role of real emotions and virtues as defining human friendship, love, and being human in digital and post-digital democratic societies.
At the same time, over the past five years I have become increasingly engaged with two new philosophically-intensive subfields in Media and Communication - Existential Media Studies and Human-Machine Communication (HMC). Still more recent work has extended into religious studies and theology, in part as these frameworks continue to define for the majority of humanity basic philosophical assumptions about being human and address primary existential questions of what possible meaning we may discern and/or create for ourselves (see, e.g., Between Luther and Buddhism: Scandinavian Creation Theology and Robophilosophy. In M. Nørskov, J Seibt & O Quick (eds.), Culturally Sustainable Social Robotics: Proceedings of Robophilosophy 2020, 611-616. Amsterdam: IOS Press. doi:10.3233/FAIA200968.)
My focus on the cultural dimensions of these assumptions, and especially the culturally-variable ethical dimensions of technological design, implementation and impacts has been informed by nearly 20 years' engagement in the biennial, highly interdisciplinary conference series on "Cultural Attitudes towards Technology and Communication" (1998-2016). I have summarized the main developments and findings in this work in "What’s 'culture' got to do with it? A (personal) review of CATaC (Cultural Attitudes towards Technology and Communication), 1998-2014," Routledge Companion to Global Internet Histories (Gerard Goggin, Mark McLelland, eds.), 34-48, 2017).
This attention to culture and ethics also has a highly practicable focus in my work with the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) as we have developed now three primary documents on Internet Research Ethics - the first in 2002, and the most recent in 2020. These guidelines are in wide use globally, and can be accessed at AoIR Ethics. In conjunction with this work, I have served as a research ethics advisor to a number of projects - most recently, the Datafied Living project, funded by the European Research Council and Danmarks Freie Forskningsfond, Stine Lomborg, PI. "Datafied Living concerns the study of self-tracking and other forms of person-based tracking across personal, work and institutional contexts of everyday life."


My formal education was in languages (German, classical Greek, French) and history of philosophy, with specific interests in existential thought, comparative philosophy, and applied ethics.  My PhD (1983) is from the Pennsylvania State University and explores Kant’s use of analogical predication as a systematic ambiguity central to his Critical Project, including his accounts of aesthetic judgment, ethics, and faith-reason relationships.  In the U.S., I taught and administered for nearly three decades in the liberal arts traditions, including interdisciplinary humanities and writing across the curriculum.   My long-standing interests in technology and computation took focus in early work on hypertext, hypermedia, and computer-assisted instruction in logic: these led in turn to work in Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC); Medium Theory (Innis, McLuhan, Ong, Eisenstein, Postman, Meyerwitz); cultural intersections with technology and communication; and their subsequent unfoldings as Internet Studies.

I am especially interested in making philosophical ethics accessible and applicable to non-philosophers – whether in more professional contexts such as developing and applying research ethics guidelines (especially in affiliation with the Association of Internet Researchers), or in more general contexts, as reflected in my volume Digital Media Ethics, now in its 3nd ed. (Polity, 2020). This interest is further apparent in my teaching and my lectures. 

Teaching and tutoring

Both courses focus on core principles of human autonomy, privacy, and freedom of expression in democratic societies, and how these may be protected, if not enhanced, in the face of contemporary challenges and problems, such as surveillance, hate speech, corporate censorship, and so on.

Special fields

  • Internet Studies
  • Digital Media Ethics
  • Internet Research Ethics
  • Democratization potentials of new media
  • Online religion
  • Cross-cultural approaches to online communication and ethics

Beyond the University

Special scientific advisor, DIGMEX (Digital Media and EXistential issues and challenges).

Workshops on research ethics for graduates and professionals;
Ethics advisor to two current EU research projects, VOXPOL (Virtual Centre of Excellence for research in Violent Online Political Extremism), and HUMANE (A typology, method and roadmap for HUman-MAchine NEtworks Focusing on human-machine relationship).

Founding Member of the Computing and Philosophy conferences - now the International Association for Computing and Philosophy: I have organized an extensive range of conferences in collaboration with IACAP, International Society for Ethics in Technology (INSEIT), and ETHICOMP.

Editorial Boards

  • Oxford Internet Institute Studies – Understanding life online (book series).
  • Digital Humanities Introductions: Religion (DeGruyter)
  • Journal editorial boards:  new media and society; Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication; Philosophy and Technology;  Asian Communication Research; Javnost-The Pubic;  International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics.

Higher education and employment history

Previous academic positions include Distinguished Research Professor, Interdisciplinary Studies, Drury University (Springfield, Missouri, USA) and several guest professorships in Germany, Austria, France, and Scandinavia, including Guest Professor, Philosophy Department, University of Vienna. Fall semester, 2013.

Professor in Media Studies, Department of Media and Communication since 2012.


Tags: Media and communication, Internet, Digital media, Religion and politics, Ethics
Published Sep. 15, 2012 10:02 AM - Last modified Aug. 22, 2021 8:34 AM