PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - DECEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 4
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Technological Paternalism

By Julia M. Williams

PROFESSORS MUST HELP ENGINEERING STUDENTS EDUCATE THE PUBLIC-NOT CONDESCEND TO IT.

Why is it so difficult for engineers to engage in a real dialogue with other members of society about technology?
If one is to accept the stereotypes associated with the engineering profession, engineers don't provide clear answers to society's questions about the impact of technology. Instead, they are evasive or rely on incomprehensible jargon that increases the distrust between technology's developers and its users. Engineers are thought to be arrogant and unable to communicate effectively. They have been accused of assuming a haughty demeanor with those who have concerns about technology but don't have the technical background to understand it.

But making technical information clear to a nontechnical audience may not be a matter of simply improving the communication skills of engineers. I believe we must also look closely at the codes of ethics of the professional engineering organizations with which we encourage students to identify. Students in my Technical Communication class are asked to conduct a search for codes of ethics at the websites of professional organizations such as ASME, IEEE, and ACM. I ask students to familiarize themselves with the ethical codes, as well as the professional expectations, they must abide by in the technical workplace.

In my own review, I have found that these codes may contribute to an engineer's arrogance toward his or her technical work. The following examples illustrate the point. ASME code states that "Engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor, and dignity of the engineering profession by: using their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare; being honest and impartial, and serving with fidelity the public, their employers, and clients..."

Similarly the IEEE Code states, "We, the members of the IEEE, in recognition of the importance of our technologies in affecting the quality of life throughout the world, and in accepting a personal obligation to our profession, its members, and the communities we serve, do hereby commit ourselves to the highest ethical and professional conduct..."

If we look carefully at the emphasis in these codes, we can see that both endorse a kind of technological stewardship, the idea that engineers are supposed to use their skills in developing technology to serve communities and enhance human welfare—noble goals, to be sure. Both codes place engineers in the role of the technical expert, as they "use their knowledge and skills" to improve the conditions for human life. There is, however, the strong implication that the engineer's expertise places him or her in a trusted but unassailable position in which the engineer knows best. The IEEE code even goes so far as to identify the technologies as "our technologies," owned in a sense by members of IEEE. Neither code explicitly requires engineers to listen to their communities or take their concerns into account when developing technologies. It is not a big leap to turn what begins in the codes as technological stewardship into a kind of technological paternalism, an "engineer knows best" perspective that puts the engineer at odds with society.

Engineers play an important role in our society, creating new devices and developing new processes that save lives and improve daily existence. In general, however, engineers are unprepared to encounter the public in anything but the role of technical "giver" who must assist the technologically "needy" and "dumb down" information to make it marginally understandable. As engineering educators, I would ask that we consider the problem of the engineer's relation to society in the broader context of both communication and ethics.

Julia M. Williams is an associate professor of English and coordinator of technical communication at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

 

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CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: Technological Paternalism - By Julia M. Williams
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