– Engineers are Not Just Building Things, They are Building Society and Social Relationships

What is the relationship between technology and society? And how can engineers learn more about the social implications of their daily work?

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By Maren Myrseth 


These are some of the issues that professor Deborah G. Johnson grappled with when writing her new textbook Engineering Ethics. In her innovative approach to teaching and learning ethics, dr Johnson applied debates as a framework to explore the most difficult and controversial issues that engineers face in their daily practice.Learning to engage in debates will help engineers in making better technical decisions, dr Johnson claims. In this exclusive, digital interview she gives us insight into the process of writing the Engineering Ethics book.

Deborah Johnson
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Professor Deborah G. Johnson is a leading scholar in the field of engineering and computer ethics, and lives in Virginia, USA. She is the Anne Shirley C. Olsson Professor of Applied Ethics in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at the University of Virginia. Professor Johnson has taught ethics to engineering students at the University of Virginia, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is a professor II at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies, where she is engaged with the ViSmedia project. Videos from Dr. Johnson´s latest research on new technologies and the media can be found here and here , and her latest publications are found here

What were your motivations for writing this book? 

Over the course of my career I have taught engineering ethics to students at three major institutions, Rensselaer Polytechnic, Georgia Tech, and University of Virginia.  When I retired from teaching in 2016, I thought it would be a nice retirement project to write a book that embodied all that I had figured out about engineering ethics.  

 Having used many of the available textbooks on the topic, I thought I had a way of thinking about the issues that I hadn’t found in other books. I thought what I had to say might be useful to others who teach engineering ethics and helpful to students. I thought writing the book would be easy and interesting but, of course, putting what is in your head onto paper is always much harder than one anticipates.  

The process took me much longer than I anticipated and I learned some new things along the way.  Retirement gives one more time to read and think, so the book turned out a little different than I had planned and required me to delve into some new areas. 

In the book I cover micro and macro ethical issues, that is, ethical questions that individual engineers might face in their jobs as well as broader issues having to do with the effects of engineering endeavors on society including issues that the profession of engineering – engineers collectively – face.  My approach is different than other books in that it is based on the idea that if we are to expect engineers to be responsible for the effects of their work on society, then they need to understand the relationship between technology and society.  The connection between engineering and ethics is revealed through an understanding of how technology shapes and is shaped by society.  In other words, the understanding provided by the field of STS bridges engineering with ethics.

To bring this back to my motivations in writing this book, I thought that I would bring this understanding of the relationship between engineering, STS, and ethics to others, and, in the process of writing about it, I would come to further understand it myself.”

What has changed since your last publication regarding this topic «Ethical issues in engineering»?

“ I published a reader on engineering ethics in 1991 (Ethical Issues in Engineering, Prentice Hall).  A lot has changed since then, so I’ll mention just a few things. I should add that a lot has changed in engineering and technology as well as in my understanding of it all.  

When I put together the 1991 reader, I was trying to sort out engineering as a profession and in particular I was struck by the tension between engineers understanding themselves to be professionals and at the same time facing the reality that most of them worked as employees in organizations such that they take orders from those above them who may or may not themselves be engineers.  At the time this seemed the overarching problem in engineering giving rise to such issues as the ethics of whistleblowing and responsibility for the social effects of one’s work. Engineers seemed to be troubled by their lack of independence especially in corporate environments.  I thought the solution might be stronger professionalism and more autonomy for individual engineers and engineering professional organizations. With this on my mind, I organized the first book around the relationships that individual engineers have with employers, clients, and society.  

These issues are still important and still quite prominent in the new book, but I have put more emphasis on how engineering and society are intertwined.  I try to debunk the idea that engineers and engineering are neutral and the idea that the technical and the social can be separated.  The big idea that underlies the new book is that engineers are not just building things, they are building society and social relationships.  This means that ethics is not a separable aspect of engineering.  Engineering is inherently an ethical endeavor.  Rather than claiming that decisions about technology are up to others, such as those who pay for it or those who use it, engineers should be asking what sort of world they want to build. 

Another thing I did differently in the new book is to organize the ethical issues in engineering as debates.  My graduate training was in philosophy and that training is one of the special elements that I think I bring to the field of engineering ethics.  Philosophers think in terms of arguments, and in teaching I have always used arguments as a way of focusing student attention and encouraging them to think rigorously about ethics. The point of engaging in debates is not necessarily to decide which side you should believe in.  Rather, by engaging in a debate you come to understand many more aspects of a topic than you would notice if you were just trying to form an opinion on your own.  In fact, often in debates, people develop more nuanced positions that weave together factors that came to light from both sides of an issue.  So, in the new book, I have organized each chapter around a debate.  Does engineering need a code of ethics? Are engineering whistleblowers heroes or traitors? Will autonomous cars ever be safe enough? And so on.

In regards to visual surveillance technologies that are infused into many parts of our society, what are engineers’ responsibilities in making and innovating these?  

In the book, I don’t explicitly address visual surveillance technologies, but I do discuss more broadly engineers’ responsibilities for their work and how their work has social consequences.  This is most explicitly addressed in the chapter that asks “is social justice in the scope of engineers’ social responsibility?” In this chapter, the debate is whether engineers can be responsible for projects they work on when these projects involve many different actors, organizational hierarchies, and diverse kinds of expertise.  

The chapter concludes that even though individual engineers are often only one actor in an endeavor that involves many others, they cannot be absolved of responsibility and should do whatever they can in their professional roles to make the world a better place.” 

You argue that engineering is as much a social endeavor as it is technical. Why is it important to promulgate this?  

“Good question.  I believe that engineering is a social endeavor and I push this idea because I believe it goes counter to many assumptions that are deeply embedded in engineering culture and practice and often expressed by engineering students.  These assumptions include that technology is value-neutral, that technical knowledge is objective and therefore not subject to social or political shaping, and that engineers can’t be responsible for how technology is used. Contrary to these assumptions, I believe that engineering as a profession and as a body of knowledge has been shaped by the social world in which it is embedded and that engineering shapes the social world in which it operates. Most importantly, I push this idea because I want aspiring engineers to recognize that their work affects the social world and that engineering does not have to be the way it is now.  They have a role to play in how their work affects the world and also in the shape of the profession in the future.”

What has been the response since the publication of the book? 

The book just came out in the last few months and it came out during the pandemic so I have no sense of the response.”