Technological determinism is denounced by Dr. Erin Cech in her critique of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges report. This discussion focuses on the strengths of Cech’s argument surrounding the engineering double standard in social media, virtual reality, and reverse-engineering the brain. Though she makes many strong arguments, pieces of Cech’s argument fall short. Pointing fingers at the entirety of the engineering community and holding the Grand Challenges to a standard for which they were not intended weaken Cech’s overall discussion. However, her argument is ultimately a valid discussion of a profession that would benefit from wider perspectives in a world full of complex issues.
The National Academy of Engineering’s (NAE) Grand Challenges is a set of curated challenges for the 21st-century engineer, meant to inspire young people in STEM to change the world. While these challenges do include many socially conscious topics, sociologist Erin Cech correctly asserts that progress is seen by the NAE as purely “technical,” rarely questioning whether a certain technology should be created. This critique, which draws heavily on the theory of “technological determinism,” is relevant today as many engineering marvels of the 21st century have become detrimental to people’s lives. Technological progress is often seen as inevitable and necessary for the development of humanity, and Cech worries that the Grand Challenges never truly explore alternative avenues of progress in social, cultural, or political schools of thought. Ultimately, Cech is mostly right in her analysis of the Grand Challenges, and the flaws she highlights may incentivize unethical engineering in the 21st century.
Cech defines technological determinism as unethical engineering, where the engineer is put onto a pedestal to save the world with innovation and invention without any understanding of the social or cultural impacts of their creations. These engineers tend to invent simply because they can, and not necessarily because they should, leaving any negative consequences to be dealt with by other people. The negative consequences of these inventions are often thought to be necessary, short-term fallout on the road to long-term progress . Cech argues that the NAE incentivizes engineers to ignore alternative definitions of progress in social, political, cultural, and environmental spheres of life, resulting in purely technological solutions to complex problems. Technological determinism shuts down democratic thinking and expects technology to be an inherent answer to the world’s problems, despite this often not being the case.
Technological determinism is not a new concept, and we can see many of its effects in engineering today, especially after the creation of the internet. In 2004, after Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook, social media was heralded by engineers as the technological invention of the decade. As tech companies around the world began building their platforms, computer scientists promised that social media would revolutionize the way we communicate, bringing us closer together than ever before . What psychologists have found instead is that social media leaves us feeling lonelier, while reinforcing addictive routines using neurological reward systems . The Social Dilemma, a documentary about the perils of social media, exposes how many social media companies have developed manipulative algorithms that take advantage of user weaknesses to reinforce certain behaviors, often to the benefit of advertisers. McClean Hospital says that these “platforms are designed to be addictive and are associated with anxiety, depression, and even physical ailments” . These technologies were built without a thorough analysis of their social and cultural impacts, which is one of the hallmarks of technological determinism. To this day, Facebook continues to fight off whistleblowers like Frances Haugen, who expose deceptive business practices used to push digital platforms . Cech asks engineers to consider whether there is a less dangerous, non-technical way to better connect people. If not, then there must be a more thorough examination of technological milestones like social media to better understand its effect on people.
According to Cech, many of the Grand Challenges demonstrate technological determinism, being examples of engineering purely for the sake of invention. For instance, the “enhancement of virtual reality” challenge seeks to improve the realism and cost-effectiveness of virtual reality without questioning the social or cultural implications. Instead, the challenge mentions only the positive applications of this technology, including therapy, gaming, education, and improved conferencing. The NAE heralds virtual reality as a technology that “has the potential to revolutionize how we communicate,” echoing the promises of social media from the early 2000s . This technology has already begun to take off: “The Metaverse,” announced in late 2021 as the next technological marvel of the 21st century, combines virtual reality and the internet into a collection of digital experiences . Despite how exciting that may sound, virtual reality also has the potential to further isolate us from each other and remove in-person interactions from daily life. The psychological and cultural effects of this would be unprecedented, not to mention the physical effects of having a screen so close to your eyes. However, nowhere is this mentioned in the Grand Challenges. Instead, virtual reality is expected to be improved simply because it can be, which is the hallmark of technological determinism that Cech underlines.
Another great example of technological determinism can be found in the challenge to “reverse-engineer the brain,” which fails to explore the social and ethical concerns of such powerful technology. In writing on why we should reverse-engineer the brain, the NAE touches on improved simulations, a better understanding of mental health disorders, and the advancement of neural networks. This oversimplification fails to recognize the dangers of letting this type of technology fall into the wrong hands. The advancement of neural networks to a human level of critical thinking would allow for the mass generation of believable fake news, which could be used to manipulate elections and overturn democracies. They may also allow students to cheat on their writing assignments by auto-generating high-quality essays. OpenAI, which initially hosted some of the most powerful open-source neural nets, had at one point locked its networks behind a significant paywall because of these two concerns . These outcomes alone could have significant societal impacts, but they are not mentioned in the Grand Challenges.
While many of Cech’s critiques are valid, her criticism of the “prevention of nuclear terror” challenge acts as an attack on engineers rather than an example of technological determinism. At first, Cech correctly recognizes that the NAE suggests purely technical solutions to preventing nuclear terror. Many of the problems presented may be better solved through legislative work. However, Cech also mentions that the NAE “steer clear of acknowledging engineers’ role in the Manhattan Project which developed that very technology” . Cech showcases a double standard where engineers attempt to solve problems that they have created. While this may be true, it makes little sense to attack the NAE for attempting to solve a problem that has existed for many decades and will continue to exist. The unfortunate truth is that these advanced weapons already exist. The important goal should be to understand why they were built and prevent their use in any way possible. Rather than focusing on this goal, Cech generalizes engineers based on the actions of a small group of people several decades ago. These weapons were developed in a highly secretive program, a program which only 0.03% of the US population knew existed . It is difficult to imagine engineers across the globe sharing these inventions, and it would be nearly impossible for them to stop some of the most powerful world governments from developing atomic weapons. Ultimately, engineers are not solely to blame. Rather, politicians and governments also hold major responsibility for the development of nuclear weapons, considering several engineers, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, were firmly against their production and use.
Cech also mentions how the Grand Challenges use technological determinism and heroic language to position engineering as dominant over other fields. However, this is an aggressive interpretation of what the NAE is attempting to achieve. These are grand challenges, after all, meant to inspire engineers to solve some of the most complex problems on the planet. These are also engineering challenges, meaning it should come as no surprise that they focus primarily on the technological side. An engineer would not be expected to write public policy on nuclear terror, but they would be expected to build defense systems to protect civilians. Thus, it seems unfair to expect the Grand Challenges to incorporate all schools of thought. Simply suggesting a technological solution to a technological problem is not an example of technological determinism. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize when an outside opinion may be useful in building ethical and sustainable technologies. Communicating with specialists in a variety of fields would help engineers understand the broader implications of their projects in ways that might not be obvious.
Many of the ethical concerns that Cech mentions from the Grand Challenges are addressed in the Citizen Engineer handbook, which attempts to outline socially responsible engineering practices in greater detail . More specifically, Cech argues that the “Grand Challenges leave no room for social justice discussions,” which would be true if it were the only resource available to engineers . The Grand Challenges do not always explicitly mention the social and ethical implications of their proposed solutions because they have a separate purpose. The NAE attempts to inspire youth to pursue an education and career in STEM, so including critiques of engineering would impede this pursuit. Engineers should instead be using Citizen Engineer in conjunction with the Grand Challenges to build sustainable and socially responsible technologies. Rather than changing the nature of the Grand Challenges, the NAE could point fledgling engineers towards these resources.
Cech ultimately makes a strong argument that the Grand Challenges forget to consider the myriad of low-tech and non-tech solutions to their problems. In her own words, “Technological determinism […] is a highly inaccurate depiction of societal change […] [that] closes down any room for questions about whether these endeavors should be undertaken in the first place” . Why, for instance, does the “advancement of personalized learning” focus so much on web technologies and neural processing when developing nations lack paper, pencils, books, and a connection to the internet? There may be many great social and psychological solutions to personalized learning that do not require web technologies. Why does “managing the nitrogen cycle” require a technological solution when public policy limiting emissions could be just as (if not more) effective? When engineers forget the complex, inter-dimensional nature of these problems, it leads to narrow-minded solutions. These solutions can be ineffective at best, and catastrophic at worst. As a result, the Grand Challenges should accurately reflect this, or at least guide the audience to additional resources that do.
By Thomas Peters, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California
About the Author
At the time of writing, Thomas Peters was a junior studying computer science at the University of Southern California. He is from Los Angeles, CA and plans to work as a software engineer. Outside of work, he is incredibly passionate about artificial intelligence and its implications for modern society.
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