My Introduction to Science, Technology, & Society class recently discussed “space ethics,” and part of that conversation involved weighing the costs and benefits of prioritizing space exploration over other alternatives – most notably, ocean exploration.
For part of our discussion, I grouped my students into two different teams and gave them a task: one team had to decide how to convince the public to support funding space exploration, while the other team needed to convince the public that it was better to support ocean exploration.
As someone who grades memos in technical communication classes, I often find myself asking: Is the grammar correct? Is the information accessible? Is it organized and readable? If I answer yes to these questions, I could say that the memo is not only effectively written but also follows what technical communication scholar Stephen Katz would describe as the “ethic of expediency.” But can a memo be ethical in how efficiently it conveys information but unethical in how it impacts human lives? Is it important for information – and technology – to be both efficient and decent?
I can’t help but think of Mike Judge’s 1999 movie Office Space when Bill Lumbergh (played to perfection by Gary Cole) leans into Peter Gibbons’ cubicle to chastise him about forgetting to follow the new company policy of putting a cover letter on a TPS report. “Did you see the memo about this?” Lumberg asks in a cringey, monotone drawl. He blatantly disregards Peter’s apology and reasonable plan to fix the error, instead telling Peter that he’ll send him the memo again – even though Peter has it right in front of him.
As a dark comedy, Office Space makes us laugh with its relatability and only slightly exaggerated representation of a stifling work environment where efficiency is valued over human decency. History brings us some much darker examples, sans the comedy.
A chair is just a chair, right? Well, since you’re reading this blog you probably won’t be surprised that my STS answer is not necessarily – there’s a lot more to it than that.
Dr. Zhu’s campus talk last month began with a fundamental concept in STS that I’d like to revisit: technologies are not neutral. That doesn’t mean, like some of my students first assume, that technology is simply either good or bad, like an angel or demon sitting on your shoulder. It means that technologies are expressions of things that we value as humans, such as safety, freedom, connection, privacy, and so on.
Let’s go back to chairs and specifically those you would find in an in-person college classroom. If you google images for “college classrooms,” you’ll find many pictures of traditional teacher- and technology-focused designs – the ones that probably pop into your own head when you think about a classroom.
But have you ever wondered why a classroom is the way it is, or if that’s the way it should be? That’s a question that intrigues scholars of built pedagogy, the study of the physical representation of educational philosophies. A fundamental principle of this field is that technologies are not neutral. A classroom is not just a space to learn, but a place that embodies beliefs, values, biases, and ideologies. It is, dare I say it, political in nature. For instance, the built environment establishes what bodies can move in space and how easily. A classroom that one student might easily navigate may feel drastically different for a student with a disability or injury.
I recently binged the Netflix show Cobra Kai, which brings the characters from the 1984 film Karate Kid into the present. My favorite character in the show is not the original hero Danny Larusso (Ralph Macchio), but the down-and-out and hopelessly politically incorrect Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), owner of the revitalized Cobra Kai dojo.
Lawrence is particularly fun to watch as he struggles to learn how to use computers and the internet – from turning on a computer and accessing wi-fi to navigating social media and all the unspoken rules of internet communication. If you’ve watched Cobra Kai on Netflix or YouTube (where it originally started), you’re already better versed in the internet than Johnny, who’d likely guess “Netflix” was a movie about basketball.