Researcher explores society-technology relationships

January 23, 2009

Few researchers engage engineering, history, science fiction and philosophy in the course of their work. But that diverse mix is not only relevant to the transdisciplinary field of science and technology studies, it’s merely a sampling of the breadth of disciplines tapped by assistant professor Jameson Wetmore as he studies how society and technology influence one another and affect the world. Proving the point is a dynamic new anthology co-edited by Wetmore – a faculty member in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and affiliated with ASU's Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes – and professor Deborah Johnson of the University of Virginia.

Last November, MIT Press released “Technology and Society: Building our Sociotechnical Future” as part of its esteemed Inside Technology series. Featuring a wide range of writings from notables like Bruno Latour, Freeman Dyson and Judy Wajcman addressing everything from politics to the environment, the anthology offers a full-spectrum look at social studies of technology. Recently, Wetmore—whose eclectic background includes a doctorate in science and technology studies from Cornell University—sat down to discuss the book, his research and his hopes for the future of interdisciplinary work. Download Full Image

Q: How did this book come about?
A: Deborah and I wanted to create an accessible, interesting way to introduce students to the field of technology studies. There were already a handful of edited volumes with very good material, but they were aimed at professors and upper-level graduate students who specialize in the area. We felt the ideas being discussed by these people were too important to be kept in an ivory tower. What engineers and scientists do truly shapes the world. In fact every person who makes decisions about technology has a lot of responsibility and needs to think about the potential impact of the technology he or she creates before employing it.

Q: Is this primarily a textbook?
A: It can be used as an undergraduate textbook, but the goal audience is much wider. When preparing the anthology, I kept thinking that it had to be something my parents would understand. If they don’t get it, then I’ve failed because the point is to make this subject accessible. It would be nice to see the book used not just in science and technology studies but in other fields like engineering or anthropology or sociology, and also read outside the classroom by people interested in this area.

Q: How did you choose the articles?
A: A handful are classics, some are personal favorites and others are of special significance to our peers. Deborah and I have worked at other institutions prior to ASU and UVA, so we have a grasp of what people in this field find exciting and important. For example, Deborah discovered that the E.M. Forster piece (“The Machine Stops”) really resonated with her colleagues at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. That sci-fi short story was written in 1909, but it’s still relevant. I use it in my classes sometimes, and people are always amazed at when it was written and how it has held up over time.

Q: One of your own articles, dealing with the Amish community, is included in the anthology. What interests you about the Amish?
A: The Amish take a comprehensive approach to technology. They make informed decisions about the technology they employ and consider how the technology fits with their values and lifestyle and how it will affect their lives and environment. This fascinates me because the approach in the United States typically is very different. We tend to use a more reactionary approach. Most regulatory agencies in the U.S. really only take action once a problem already exists. The Europeans are a bit more like the Amish. They more often apply the precautionary principle. They think about the possible consequences that could occur from the use of a particular technology. If there is a possibility of catastrophic fallout, they either cancel the program or proceed with a great deal of caution.

Q: How do you think this reactionary paradigm can be changed?
A: Science and technology studies need to be made part of the science and engineering curricula. I have co-taught courses with engineering faculty who have come away with a greater sense of the need to fully consider the implications of their work and who want to learn more about science and technology studies. It is much easier to do this sort of integrated teaching at ASU than most other places. We’ve had a lot of luck in finding people willing to take the time and effort to make such education experiences possible.

Q: What are your plans for the future?
A:  Deborah and I will be producing a second book, aimed specifically at engineers. It will be the engineering ethics book we began work on before we changed directions and created the technology studies anthology. I will continue to teach or co-teach Technology and Society, a course that uses the anthology. Through my teaching and writing, I want to, in a sense, empower students to exert control over their lives and to make informed decisions. And, of course, I’ll continue my research. ASU is one of the best places to work in this field because it supports interdisciplinary efforts and has amazing faculty who are dedicated to working together and learning from each other, as well as teaching.

Rebecca Howe

Communications Specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


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