In the book, “Computer ethics,” Deborah Johnson shows readers the roles of nature and society on the development and adoption of technologies. It raises engineers' awareness of their influences on shaping the world. Depending on how their artifacts are designed or used or even abused, it can shape society in certain ways which can either promote social justice or “enforce social biases and privilege individual agendas” (Johnson, 2009, p. 17).
Johnson argues for Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) in which technologies are shaped by society, and at the same time, technologies can have their influence back on what creates/shapes them. She successfully disproved the major tenet of Technological Determinism, technology is seen as an isolated object developing independently from the society, by giving examples about the socially constructed bicycle (Johnson, 2005, p. 1793), and the production and distribution of nuclear power from Winner (1986). Johnson (2005) stated that “Scientists and engineers look at nature through lenses of human interests, theories, and concepts; engineers invent and build things that fit into particular social and cultural contexts” (p. 1792). Social factors can shape or thrust technological development in a certain direction. Studies of Anderson et al (2010) about engineering further confirms the intertwinement between society (e.g. economy, politics) and technology. He found out that in order for an engineer to invent or redesign certain technology, he has to communicate with his client or clients to understand what they want, cooperate with his team/company to see what resources are available, finish the job within the budget and time, and more importantly his product has to follow the engineering standards and government regulations. Therefore, technology is "social." Johnson (2009) suggested “[Users can] shape the technology by customizing settings, demanding changes from developers, and choosing between alternative products” (p. 15). An example for this social constructivism viewpoint is when users decide to buy/use a certain branch of cell phone (iPhone for example), the money gained from the business can be used to further develop the iPhone according to customers’ needs or Apple’s ambitions, but on the other hand, less popular types of cellphones quietly go out of business. Technological determinists, individuals believe that technologies develop by themselves, and new technologies evolves from older ones, have their invaluable points on this user-related situation. Ceruzzi (2005) pointed out that some people could deny buying computers, but the growing power of the computer chip was “unstoppable”. Especially, some technologies such as digital camera and Microsoft Word left users with no choice but to accept it (p. 586). The living examples for the rampant influence of computing technologies are that each engineering student at the University of Virginia is “required” to have a laptop or tablet, and to have their research papers word processed. Again, SCOT comes into play in this situation. Depending on what kind of laptop or tablet they buy, they inadvertently push the development of the computer in a particular direction. What about the people who never buy or use a computer? Do they have any influence on computing technology? Business people are more likely to say “No” because there is no point in developing computer based on the interests of these people, who will not spend any money on computing products. It is not just in the computing industry that certain groups of people have no power in “shaping” technology, but also other fields of technology such as automobiles and housing. The poor and the homeless have little or no influence on these technologies because businesses or private companies always aim for the people with the money, not the penniless ones. They only design cars and houses to fit the needs of their customers. As engineers develop more advanced technologies, they have also “[enforced] social biases and privilege individual agendas” (Johnson, 2009, p. 17) because little voice of the “powerless” is taken into consideration.
Reasoning about social biases, the powerful and the rich people, where did they get the money from? Jarmo (1999) offered a brilliant example on how people can get rich by harming the environment, and suppressing others’ opportunities to survive. For the negative effect of the economy (e.g. forest industry) on the environment Jarmo (1999) pointed out that “… the whole river smells of timber, waterlogged softwood. It is unbelievable how many logs are in the water, floating along with the stream” (p. 238). Big companies built sawmills to make lots of money, and meanwhile they rapidly wiping away the water and food supplies of many other people. Jarmo (1999) further noted how the river was mistreated saying “[The river was] a means of disposing waste. The forest industry has utilized lake and river systems as sewers, and it has been the worst water polluter in Finland” (as cited in Tana & Lehtinen, 1996). Luckily, we do not see these scenes in Finland, today (Jarmo, 1999, p. 238). However, until the environmental regulations came into play, business people in forest industry had earned a large amount of money which they could use to earn even more money (e.g. creating more troubles, and social biases), while the poorer people, who lived on the river resources such as fish and games, were affected by the environmental change struggling to for a living. This poor, powerless group of people had no voice in determining how the powerful ones use technology to change or even “determine” their lives. In this case, Technological Determinism unmasks its authority.
However, there came the government regulations on these polluting companies to protect the environment. Technology (e.g. forest industry) is now shifted to the side of social construction (e.g. being shaped by politics), but what has been done to compensate for the harm to the environment, and the hard time of fishermen and their families, whose lives depended on the health of the river? “Nothing,” but somewhat, the “polluting villain” was restrained. The rich flee with their bags full of money. Where is justice? “Aren’t all men created equal?”
“Yes, they are,” but some men take advantage of the natural and social recourses faster, and more viciously than the others do. Their acts negatively disturb the latecomers’ development promoting social inequality. Is technology the root of all these troubling, social injustice? It is complicated, but for some instances technology does push society in certain ways which promote the social injustice. Winner (1986) gave an example about the tomato harvester which was developed by tax money, but it was used to benefit certain group of people while severely “punish” the others (p. 7), engineers get the jobs about the tomato harvesters while works for most former farmers silently disappear. Nye (2006) stated that internet was military funded (p. 10). However, who is benefiting from this technology? Is it Google or Yahoo or Amazon or everyone? “Everyone benefits from the internet,” of course not, but if it is even so, who gains the most?
Winner (1986) pointed out the development of certain bridges on Long Island as a determinant for the social inequality:
Some two hundred or so low-hanging overpasses on Long Island were there for a reason [that]…poor people and blacks, who normally used public transit, were kept off the roads because the twelve-foot tall buses could not handle the over passes (p. 3-4).
Furthermore, the design of roads in the United States in most places also determines how certain technology can be adopted, while also making it impractical for others. For example, most roads and especially highways do not have bicycle lanes. For this reason, people tend to use automobiles rather than bicycles as their transportation. For the young and poor people, they have no car, and also have no choice; they use car lanes for cycling and skateboarding; this inadvertently increases the likeliness of them getting killed. The outcomes of the tomato harvester, the internet, the Long Island bridges, and road design reveal to us that certain technologies can promote if not “determine” the social injustice. Are the Amish, Christians aiming for a humble life, protecting social justice by denying modern technologies?
Wetmore (2007) emphasized that, “[The Amish] believe change does not necessarily result in desirable ends” (p. 297). They prohibit whichever technology disrupts the harmony of their community. Amish people long for a united community with peace, love and equality (Wetmore, 2007). Are these values, peace, love and equality, the ultimate answer for “progress to what?” in Marx’s (2000, p. 12) Does improved technology mean progress?, and the reason for “Benjamin Franklin’s refusal to exploit his inventions for private profit” (p. 6), and also the statement Thomas Jefferson craved to make in the Declaration of Independence? The answer is “Absolutely yes” because if it is “no,” what are we pursuing? Or we may further ask “Why are we here? What is the meaning of life?” The Amish have the answer from the beginning, peace, love and equality. So, at the end of the journey, are the Amish somehow more advanced (e.g. closer to the ultimate goals of life) than anyone else of the “human race.” Or are they? In the talk of Tarter (2009, personal communication) at TED Prize Wish, she mentioned about the possibility of another intelligent life on Earth if not somewhere million or billions lightyears away. It was the dolphins. Possibly, they are the ones who are more socially advanced than humans. Even though they don’t have powerful technologies or complicated laws for science, mathematics and politics, they are the ones living in joy, peace and equality. They look at us, and wonder why we had to bother with all the troubles for education, technologies, wars, politics… while they can do the same thing (e.g. living happily) or even better with less effort, and perhaps the Amish people also look at us with the same wonder. With this conception about life, we can somewhat pinpoint what we want from this world or technologies that when we do something (e.g. develop new technologies or even buying a water bottle) we will not get off the track to our desirable ends.
Putting the Amish way of life in the global context, if everyone wants to live a happy and humble life, we have to feed seven billion people on the Earth with old farming techniques. We cannot do that, too much sweating and laboring; we need technologies such as digging sticks, hoes, ploughs, carts to do some of the job. However, these tools did not do a very nice job that we developed even more advanced technologies such as tomato harvesters, tractors, pesticides, genetically modified species, dams, cars, airplanes, computer, and the internet. Also, as the society gets more complex, we need to develop arms to protect the general public from harmful components. Even though killing people, regardless if they are harmful or not, is not moral, but when it comes to moral dilemma, we have to make the choice for a greater good. That is why we need soldiers, even though we do not want them in the first place (Amish do not believe in having soldiers). Then, people start to abuse these weapons that more advanced weapons/technologies need to be developed to “save” the world, and this cycle just keeps going with no end or even to “the end” (We do not know). Everything gets more complicated as the society evolves. We need not only food to survive or to live, but also many more things such as clothes and medicines – technologies. When these technologies were developed, they were all aimed for the same “desirable end,” common humanity. However, in lots of cases, when technologies are used, they also enforce or even determine the inequality between people such as the tomato harvester, and the bridges in Long Island mentioned by Winner (1986), the forest industry mentioned by Jarmo (1999), and the internet by Nye (2006). In some worse cases, technologies are abused by individuals for their personal purposes (e.g. economic gains), and in the process of getting to their ends they suppress/harm the chances of survival of others by ruining the environment, which is the life support system of many other organisms including dolphins. When technology is adopted by the society, it influences the society in particular ways which can “enforce social biases” (Johnson, 2009, p. 17).
Even though, science and technology studies is relatively new, it has risen the awareness of engineers and lawmakers about what they can do in term of designing or regulating technology to make the world a better place. It is not just how technologies are designed, but how they are used or misused by people matters. History proves to us that at the end of the day praiseworthy acts are steps towards common humanity and protection of the environment not the Chernobyl nuclear accident, nor the killing of nine million Jewish, nor the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan, nor the BP oil spill, nor the September 11 attack, nor the dumbing of computer waste to China. The Earth does not belong to certain countries or governments or species. Actions which harm the environment are not only unethical to other beings, but also disastrous to humans because nature is where we all get the foods, the oxygen, and even our lives from (Darwin’s evolutionary theory).
There are favorable and terrible ways technologies can bring changes to the world. Our future engineers need to recognize their important positions on shaping this world through the development of new technologies, and lawmakers on regulating technologies, and all of human race on using/buying technologies thus with a careful consideration, and conscious approach, we can bring human beings along with other inhabitants on the Earth to a common, desirable end.
Anderson, K. J. B., Courter, S. S., McGlamery, T., Nathans-Kelly, T. M., & Nicometo, C. G. (2010). Understanding engineering work and identity: a cross-case analysis of engineers within six firms. Engineering Studies, 2 (3), 153-174.
Ceruzzi P. E. (2005). Technology and culture. Society for the History of Technology, 46, 584-593.
Jarmo, K. (1999). The river as an actor-network: the Finnish forest industry utilization of lake and river systems. Geoforum, 30 (3), 235-247.
Johnson, D. (2005). Social construction of technology. Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics, 4, 1791-1795.
Johnson, D. (2009). Computer ethics (4th ed.). Prentice Hall.
Marx, L. (2000). Does Improved Technology Mean Progress? In A. H. Teich (8th ed.). Technology and The Future (p.3-12). New York: Bedford/St. Martin's Press.
Nye, D. E. (2006). Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Wetmore, J. M. (2007). Amish technology: Reinforcing values and building community. In D. Johnson, & J. M. Wetmore (Ed.), Technology and society: Building our sociotechnical future (pp. 297-318). Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Winner, L. (1986). The whale and the reactor: a search for limits in an age of high technology. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 19-39.