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The Built-in Bias of Technology

Steven H. VanderLeest
Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan


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.

Steven H. VanderLeest, “The Built-in Bias of Technology,” Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June, 2004.

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