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Exposing The Values Of Technology Through The Liberal Arts

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2003 Annual Conference


Nashville, Tennessee

Publication Date

June 22, 2003

Start Date

June 22, 2003

End Date

June 25, 2003



Conference Session

Societal Contexts of Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

8.566.1 - 8.566.9

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Steven VanderLeest

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 3261

Exposing the Values of Technology through the Liberal Arts

Steven H. VanderLeest Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan

1 Abstract

The concept of non-neutrality of technology is well established in the philosophy of technology literature. Despite this long history of defending the idea that technology, far from being neutral, actually embodies certain values and biases, engineering students do not readily agree with the concept at face value. They are much more apt to accept the simple cliché that “guns don’t kill people; people do.” They fall quickly into the misconception that since the tool has no volition nor agency it must be neutral. Why is it important to establish non-neutrality? Failure to recognize non-neutrality leads to tunnel vision and an inability to foresee the broad consequences of a particular technology. If technology is neutral, then the designers, manufacturers, and distributors of technology have little or no responsibility with regard to that technology. There are a number of methods that can be used to persuade students that the technology they design is not neutral, some as simple as using better terminology that more clearly communicates with students. However, one of the most important aspects of convincing students of this concept and more importantly, helping them to see the broad implications, is a strong liberal arts curriculum. An effective liberal arts education helps engineering students to uncover and expose the inherent values that are built into technology as it is developed and deployed. It also helps students identify the multitude of ways those values built into a technology affect our society. Recognizing the feedback between technology and society is essential in evaluating technology effectively from an ethical and moral standpoint. 2 Non-neutrality in the literature The non-neutrality of technology is well established in the philosophy of technology literature, but this is not so in our society at large. More importantly, it is not well established within the typical engineering student population, perhaps because most students are not familiar with the literature on the subject. Carl Mitcham notes that for many, the question of neutrality turns on the specific meaning of “use”. He differentiates between those that stress “use” as the technical function of a technology (which argues for the non-neutrality of technology) and those that stress “use” as the act of using the technology to perform its technical function (which argues for the neutrality of technology).1 That is, if one looks at the purpose and function of a technology, one sees that it is biased towards certain uses and thus non-neutral; if one considers the purpose only fulfilled in the actual act of use (instrumentalism), then the technology itself seems neutral. In the remainder of this section we will first briefly consider authors that have used instrumentalism to support the notion of neutrality. Second, we will look at authors that directly refute instrumentalism. Third, we will examine two warnings about the dangers of treating technology as mere ends. Fourth, we will turn to authors that consider technology essential to our humanity. Fifth, we will list some Proceedings of the 2003 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2003, American Society for Engineering Education

VanderLeest, S. (2003, June), Exposing The Values Of Technology Through The Liberal Arts Paper presented at 2003 Annual Conference, Nashville, Tennessee.

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