Teaching Technology and Society
Understanding a Complex Dynamic

by William J. Astore, associate professor of history.

Do we control technology, or does technology control us? Put differently, is technology simply a tool that humans invent to perform a certain task, or do our tools constrain or even determine our responses in ways we cannot fully predict? Is new technology always better, a sign of inevitable progress? If so, are people who resist new technology irrational, even “Luddites,” who mindlessly rage against the machine? Or are they rational and mindful seekers, working to protect time-honored values and a way of life against the perils of modernization, such as the Amish people in Pennsylvania?

"Technology, in a way, is a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected."

Pennsylvania College of Technology students debate and discuss such issues in History 262, “Technology and Society.” Immediately after becoming a four-year college in 1989, Penn College recognized the need for courses that tackled the complex dynamic that exists between technology and the many human societies that technology helps to create, sustain, and sometimes to disrupt and even to destroy. Led by Daniel J. Doyle, now an emeritus professor at Penn College, History 262 sought to introduce students to the potentially unsettling idea that technology has been, and continues to be, a powerful force that we as humans do not always fully understand, let alone fully control.

STS Courses at Penn College

As we mark the 20th anniversary of Penn College, we also mark the anniversary of the creation of STS courses, or Science, Technology and Society. Today, Penn College offers two dozen STS courses that plumb the depths of the science, technology and society dynamic in subject areas as diverse as aviation, biology, construction, and health and human services. Such courses recognize that the ultimate “success” or “failure” of technologies is often not determined solely by technical factors; other concerns, such as aesthetics or cultural values or perceptions of risk and safety, intervene to vex the most skilled scientists and engineers. Such nontechnical circumstances serve to remind us that technology is a thoroughly human endeavor – and thus often a thoroughly unpredictable one.

Is New Technology Always Better?

When History 262 was created in 1990-91, many Penn College students, recalls Doyle, arrived in class with the notion that technology is inevitably developmental and progressive, a wondrous force for good in the world. Doyle wryly recalls how he sought to encourage students to interrogate their unexamined assumptions: “I developed a mantra: ‘By what criteria and from whose perspective,’ as I challenged them and encouraged them to step back from their culturally embedded way of seeing the world.”
American culture (and American students) tends to value whatever is newest, fastest, more powerful and most profitable. American attitudes are products, if you will, of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. Yet, as America shifted from the skill and creativity of individual workers to repetitive mechanical processes in the drive to mass production and greater efficiency, was there not something lost? In raising this question in class, Doyle recounts that it was his “personal mission” to counter the prevailing view that those who resisted industrialization were reactionaries: history’s misguided and inevitable losers. Instead, Doyle notes, he sought “to reframe how they (technology’s critics) should be regarded – as seeking to preserve their skills, status in society and overall way of life.”

Thinking Critically About Technology

Since 2005, I have sought to maintain Doyle’s probing and critical approach to examining the technology-society dynamic. On the first day of class, I introduce students to Melvin Kranzberg’s First Law: “Technology is neither good nor bad. Nor is it neutral.” They learn that new technologies often produce both “winners” and “losers.” For example, robotic technology used in manufacturing automobiles leads to the elimination of manufacturing jobs, while producing new jobs in computer automation. The goal here is not to get students to think negatively about technology, but rather to get them to think critically, as well as to see technology’s broader dimensions and wider impacts.

Such broader dimensions include ethical and moral issues. Each student is required to debate the ethics and morality of a contemporary technology. Examples include surveillance technology and the protection of privacy, nuclear energy and the problem of waste storage, genetic advances and their application to the foods we eat as well as to medicine, and nanotechnology and the possible hazards of manipulating nature at the atomic level. Students also discuss the Manhattan Project (a precedent-setting collaboration among the government, military, private industry, and academia), as well as the U.S. decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan. In addressing such complex issues, students come face-to-face with the fact that technical information alone rarely compels assent, and that ethical and moral issues rarely produce binary, yes/no, good/bad answers.

Other contemporary technologies of note include medical advances, such as cochlear implants for the profoundly hearing impaired, the future of alternative-fuel cars, and the growing importance of “green” technology in the context of diminishing natural resources and rising global temperatures.

With respect to cochlear implants, students watch and critique “Sound and Fury,” a provocative documentary that introduces students to deaf culture. Reactions of the deaf community to cochlear implants ranged from eager acceptance to bitter rejection, a fact that comes as a great surprise to many hearing students. (In one class, Travis Clawson, a deaf student who later served as the commencement speaker at graduation in December 2007, explained to his fellow students why cochlear implants were not the right fit for him; for more on Travis, see the Spring 2008 issue of One College Avenue.)

Our Technologies, Ourselves

Most of all, I remind students that they are the technological makers (and decision-makers) of tomorrow. Precisely because of their technical literacy, they will be called on to make vitally important decisions, yet in doing so they need to be cognizant of wider societal and humanistic perspectives. In education as well as in our lives, we often separate the scientific and technical from the societal and humanistic. Such separation may seem convenient, even supremely rational, but is it wise? Is not technology part of what makes us human? Are we not only Homo sapiens (thinking humans) but also Homo faber (fabricating humans)?

Like a sonnet or a sculpture, technology is a human creation: the product of our hands and our minds and our souls. Technology, in a way, is a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected. The images may be dazzling or dim, dreamy or disturbing, yet they are always telling. The great Greek philosopher, Socrates, told us “to know ourselves.” A powerful and telling way to gain self-knowledge is to look closely at our creations – our technologies. For embedded within them are our values and our priorities: our hopes and our dreams. ■

William J. Astore

Editor's Note: The author is one of Pennsylvania College of Technology's most widely published faculty members. His articles and opinion columns have appeared in such venues as the The Nation, the Huffington Post, the History News Network, CBSnews.com, TomDispatch.com, Middle East Online, Asia Times and AlterNet.org, among others.


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