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.
For the second entry in our series on women in science and technology, we turn to women working on medicine and health. These women have forged new ground in medical education, done important work alongside men, and helped fill gaps in medical research by paying attention to women’s bodies.
The Edinburgh Seven – selected by Laura Kremmel
The Edinburgh Seven were not only the first women medical students in Britain, they were also the first British women to be undergraduates of any field. They included Sophia Jex-Blake, Mary Anderson, Emily Bovell, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Edith Pechey, and Isabel Thorne. After being admitted to the University of Edinburgh in 1869, they had to fight for every advancement, including assessments and clinicals, sometimes against the system and its policies and sometimes against their own professors and the men in their classes. The following year, building anger against the women culminated in the Surgeon’s Hall Riots, in which a hostile crowd of hundreds (and one sheep) attempted to prevent them from entering the building to take an exam. Despite their perseverance, they were ultimately denied their degrees. In response, they started the London School of Medicine for Women. Sophia Jex-Blake became the first woman doctor in Edinburgh, and the others continued to work in medicine in various ways.
The story of the Edinburgh Seven resurfaced in the public eye in 2019, when seven women medical students received posthumous degrees on their behalf, finally giving them the recognition for which they worked so hard. Learn more in this short video about the 2019 event.
Virginia E. Johnson – selected by Kayla Pritchard
When she was hired by gynecologist William Masters in 1970 to be his assistant in his sexology lab, their work dramatically shaped our understanding of human sexual response. As half of the “Masters and Johnson” duo, they studied the physiology and biomechanics of human sexual response, identifying what they called the “sexual response cycle,” a predictable pattern of Excitement, Plateau, Orgasm, and Resolution. Despite not having a college degree, Johnson was integral to the success of Masters’ lab. Because they were observing and measuring people actually have sex, it was Johnson’s soothing and comforting mannerisms that put people at ease and allowed the work to take place, and she also collaborated on the development of the instruments they were using. While their work is not without controversy, they fundamentally changed how researchers, doctors, and psychiatrists talked about and approached sex with their patients.
Stacy Sims – selected by Olivia Burgess
As someone with an interest in endurance sports, I’m always on the lookout for information related to nutrition, training, and health. However, most research takes a “shrink it and pink it” approach to women: take what you do for a man and then extrapolate it for a woman. Exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist Dr. Stacy Sims challenged that paradigm by researching how women’s training and nutrition needs are unique from men’s. As she says, “women are not small men.” She launched her own educational website and sports performance nutrition brand after serving as a research scientist at Stanford University from 2007-2012. In 2017, she was recognized as “one of the top 4 visionaries” in the outdoor sports industry by Outside Magazine.
I consider her a scientist worthy of note for two main reasons: 1) she saw a gap in research related to women’s health and responded by researching women to understand women, and 2) she successfully balances her academic and scientific research with effective mainstream communication to educate women around the world. In 2016, she published Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life. She is currently a Senior Research Associate at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand.