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The Built In Bias Of Technology

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2004 Annual Conference


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 20, 2004

Start Date

June 20, 2004

End Date

June 23, 2004



Conference Session

Technological Literacy II

Page Count


Page Numbers

9.1239.1 - 9.1239.11

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Paper Authors

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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 1761

The Built-in Bias of Technology Steven H. VanderLeest Department of Engineering, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI

1. Abstract

It is widely, though not universally, accepted in the literature that technology is non-neutral, i.e., it is partial to certain uses. However, this understanding is not widespread amongst engineering students, and the perception of neutrality can have perilous societal consequences. Some preliminary work has identified pedagogical approaches to instilling better understanding of non- neutrality in the classroom. This paper continues that line of thought. Starting with Kranzberg’s assertion that “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral” I explore the cultural appropriateness of technology as a sign of inherent bias. This leads to a brief examination of mental models of technology as an approach to understanding how the unintended consequences of a technology may not be as haphazard as first appears. With these concepts as background, I analyze the means by which bias is built into each stage of the design process. Carl Mitcham has suggested that a fruitful area of further investigation would be to examine how this bias can be identified in the structures of the technological products themselves. I conclude with some initial ideas on approaches to such an analysis, e.g., using reverse engineering analysis to translate form back to intended function.

2. Introduction

Technology is not neutral. It has an intrinsic bias that is built into it from the original inception of a particular problem, throughout the entire design process, all the way to the implementation, use, and disposal of a product. Technology is obviously biased towards at least one use – the use intended by the designer. It is designed to perform its intended function. However, other biases may be at work. Even though the designer did not consciously build in other functions, the technological product often can be used in ways the designer did not intend. Consider the lawn mower that is used to trim hedges, the car that is used to pull skateboarders, the shoe that is used to hammer in a nail, or the aircraft that is used as a weapon. Humans are ingenious tool makers but also imaginative tool users (sometimes devilishly so). Even when the maker did not envision a use, the user might boldly conceive of a new use. The possible uses of a tool are not limitless however. The structure of the tool lends itself to some uses better than others. Because the hammer pounds nails better than the shoe, we will use the hammer, given the choice. The set of likely uses, or even the wider set of viable uses provides a map of the bias that is built into the technological product.

The structure of the technology includes physical aspects (such as the shape of the hammer handle) but may also include virtual aspects (such as the layout of a computer graphical interface as a metaphor of a desktop). A technological product, especially a tool, is often considered well designed when form follows function, when the structure intuitively suggests the use. Any Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2004, American Society for Engineering Education

VanderLeest, S. (2004, June), The Built In Bias Of Technology Paper presented at 2004 Annual Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah.

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