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Exposing the Values of Technology through the Liberal Arts

Steven H. VanderLeest
Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan


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.

Steven H. VanderLeest, "Exposing the Values of Technology through the Liberal Arts," Proceedings of the 2003 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Conference, Nashville, Tennessee, June, 2003.

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