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Perspectives On Technology Through Science Fiction

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2000 Annual Conference


St. Louis, Missouri

Publication Date

June 18, 2000

Start Date

June 18, 2000

End Date

June 21, 2000



Page Count


Page Numbers

5.490.1 - 5.490.6

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Steven H. VanderLeest

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

Session 3661

Perspectives on Technology through Science Fiction

Steven H. VanderLeest Calvin College


It is important for engineering students to consider the effect technology has on society, yet standard engineering courses are usually purely technical in nature and do not grapple with difficult issues such as questions of resource use, side effects, ultimate goals, and purpose. While engineering courses sometimes ask broader questions concerning how technology affects society, students often do not get an adequate understanding of the “big picture.” In order to fully address such questions, engineering students need more than just technical skills. They must understand concepts relating to the fields of sociology, psychology, philosophy, and economics to name just a few. They must also be able to make appropriate value judgements concerning the technology they design.

Science fiction considers the most important questions about technology. A course based on science fiction readings and films can direct the students towards a considered approach to engineering design and development of technology. Such a course provides multiple advantages. First, it can give the students leverage on their own culture. An effective way to understand one’s own culture is to first look at a very different culture. Science fiction places the student in another world to examine important human conflicts, issues, questions, and desires. Second, science fiction provides a mental laboratory in which students can perform thought experiments with new technology. Third, a science fiction course can allow engineering students to interact with students in less technical disciplines. This cross-fertilization is often very helpful in working through issues of technology and its interaction with the human society within which it is embedded.

I. Introduction

Archibald Putt has said “technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand.” We generally suppose engineers, the designers of technology, understand what they create, but is this truly the case? Even when engineering students learn the technical aspects of design, it is not the whole story. Design of technology is not a simple, straightforward application of scientific principles. The engineer seeks a solution to a problem through a complex process of optimizations and trade-offs. The engineer, as the technology physician, must properly diagnose the problem and select the appropriate treatment that will cure the problem without killing the patient. An engineer who understands technology only as a narrow application of a few scientific principles will be unlikely to comprehend the broad impact technology can have on its environment. As

VanderLeest, S. H. (2000, June), Perspectives On Technology Through Science Fiction Paper presented at 2000 Annual Conference, St. Louis, Missouri.

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