Can science and technology studies prevent the next engineering disaster?
by Karl D. Stephan | November 09, 2016
"Technology is neutral. It's only how it's used that can be good or bad."
Back in the 1960s and even up to the 1970s, a statement along those lines was often the standard response you got from an engineer or scientist if you raised questions about the dangers or moral implications of a given invention. The neutrality argument was used to defend radio, television, computers, and even nuclear energy. But Sheila Jasanoff, for one, would disagree.
Jasanoff teaches science and technology studies (STS) at the Harvard Kennedy School. In an editorial in the October edition of the journal IEEE Spectrum, Jasanoff told chief editor Susan Hassler that there is no such thing as a value-neutral technology. Hassler was speaking with Jasanoff about her new book, The Ethics of Invention: Technology and the Human Future (Norton, 2016), in which Jasanoff argues that every technology worthy of the name is designed with some idea of the good in mind.
And we don't get ideas of what is good only from technology itself. That comes from the wider culture, which invariably informs and shapes the motivations of those who strive to create innovations that will do something that somebody, somewhere will regard as good. Even the terrorist assembling a kettle bomb in his basement thinks it will be good, in his private sense, if the bomb goes off and kills people. So in that limited sense, every technology is designed with some good in mind, and while the particular good may be influenced by the technology, it is what the philosophers call "logically prior to" the technology, at least most of the time.
So far so good. But then Hassler goes on to say that (STS) programs such as the one Jasanoff teaches in ought to be more closely integrated with the engineering curricula of more schools, as they are already in a few places such as the University of Virginia and Stanford. Maybe if engineering students were obliged to take in-depth looks at the social implications of technology, and STS students had to study more technical subjects, we could avoid creating monsters that look good in the laboratory or as prototypes, but end up causing disasters once they reach thousands or millions of customers.
Hassler's position is one I'm in sympathy with. I spent seven years as an officer of the IEEE's Society on Social Implications of Technology, and in the process met a lot of interesting and thoughtful people who share Jasanoff's concern that, as Hassler puts it, we seem to be stuck on a "hamster wheel of innovation, disaster, and remediation." In other words, the main way we seem to find out that a given technology can be harmful is not by doing forward-thinking studies while it's still in the planning stages, but by selling it on an industrial scale and then reaping the adverse consequences when they become so obvious that we can't ignore them.
Hassler complains that most engineering undergrads will lump STS classes in with the other humanities as time-wasting compared to the burdensome technical classes they must take in order to graduate. And by and large, she's right. This even goes for the subject that is probably the most prominent educational intersection between engineering and the humanities: engineering ethics.
Here at Texas State University, philosophy courses are required for every undergraduate student on campus, and engineering and philosophy faculty have worked together to get NSF funding to sponsor an engineering-ethics-specific undergraduate philosophy course. Hassler also cites Stanford as a place where STS majors have to complete technical requirements as well as humanities requirements. But I would point out that, unless these humanities students go on to get an advanced technical degree, they are not going to have the influence on real-world innovations that engineering students would have.
I think the basic problem here is not educational, but attitudinal. The type of person who goes in for an engineering degree likes to think that he or she is going to make a positive difference by helping to create innovative products and services that, yes, are regarded as good by somebody. The basically optimistic mindset this requires is often at cross-purposes to the mindset required in many STS subjects, which is that of a critical stance. I'm not saying that all STS people are anti-technologists. Many of them are former engineers or engineering students whose enthusiasm for their technical studies carried them beyond technical matters to explore the wider social implications of that technology, and remain basically supportive of it.
But to sustain a career, one must establish a basic point of view, and answer a question like this: Am I going to join this technical field as a participant and team player, not stopping to question the basic goodness of what I'm doing, but taking reasonable precautions to avoid foreseeable harm? Or am I going to devote my life to viewing this technology from the outside, observing its effects and consequences on various organizations and groups of people, and thinking and writing about that?
It's not as simple a division as action versus contemplation, but it comes close. And the fact of the matter is that many of the adverse consequences of certain technologies, such as burning fossil fuels, were such as to be invisible and undetectable until such time as it was way too late to forestall any harm. Some bad effects simply cannot be discovered until a technology is already in widespread use.
I sympathize with Jasanoff's concern, and Hassler's wish that STS was something that more engineers and scientists knew about. But I'm not sure that if we just had engineers taking more STS courses and STS majors taking more engineering courses, that the world would be much safer than it is now.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.
Sources: Susan Hassler's editorial "STEM Crisis? What About the STS Crisis?" appeared on p. 9 of the October 2016 North American issue of IEEE Spectrum. Sheila Jasanoff's book The Ethics of Invention: Technology and the Human Future was published in 2016 by W. W. Norton & Co.