Social Implications of Technology: "Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo"

Late last year, IEEE SSIT was invited to put together a paper for the centennial edition of the Proceedings of the IEEE for publication in May 2012 [1]. The article, “Social Implications of Technology: Past, Present, and Future,” brought together five members of SSIT with varying backgrounds, and involved two intense months of collaboration and exchange of ideas. I personally felt privileged to be working with Karl D. Stephan, Emily Anesta, Laura Jacobs, and M.G. Michael on this project.

While it is important to go on record as saying that while there was harmony in the final paper delivered to The Proceedings, there was certainly some tug-of-war related to themes and perspectives addressed in the paper. We carefully critiqued each other's writing and some twenty-three drafts later came out with the final product, some thirty pages in length. The paper included 29 telling photographs and about 180 references, many sourced from IEEE T&S Magazine.

Controversy, conflict, disagreement, discord, disharmony makes for a good plot joining together once disparate ideas. Without this cross-disciplinary dialogue and dichotomy there cannot be a holistic analysis of the observable facts. In the the Proceedings paper, we attempted to write a balanced article, at times oscillating between positive and negative social implications of technology, externalities and advances as a result of technology, and the risks versus rewards of technology's trajectory.

IEEE-SSIT is clearly not just about the adverse effects of technical change but indeed concerned with how technology can be harnessed toward optimistic ends. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine especially has a duty to its community of engineers and practitioners to publish at both ends of the spectrum, the successes and failures of technology in terms of social implications.

But more than that, T&S Magazine has a responsibility to capture what is happening, has happened, will happen. Our publication needs to move away from the mentality that says “this paper” or “this author” is for technology or against technology. This is to oversimplify many of the cases that have been published thus far in T&S. In some of the strongest articles I have read, what emerges after my reading is a depiction of a phenomenon that just “is what it is.” What makes good research is usually a good story that can capture the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As editor in chief, I will make it my goal to attract papers of all kinds — on the use and misuse of technology. You simply cannot have one without the other because the human factor is prevalent in design and deployment. I would be doing the Magazine a disservice if suddenly I were to put blinkers on to claim that technique can do no wrong, independent of whose hands it is in. This is simply not the case. If the number of papers about the negative social implications of technology seem to dominate over those on positive social implications, it has only to do with the types of papers the Magazine receives as submissions.

We cannot print articles that demonstrate benefits of technology if they have not been written and submitted for consideration. I urge you to think about writing something we can publish that reflect positive impacts of technology. I am thinking of topics such as: how affective computing can help autistic kids, the use of high frequency data streams to improve outcomes for premature infants, the advantages of using wearable technologies to do remote vocational training and assessment, the benefits to the global community of data visualization techniques for online museums, electronic methods for reducing an individual's carbon emissions footprint, historical articles that show how indigenous communities have attempted to preserve aspects of their culture through technology, using assistive social robots to care for the elderly and the young, and so forth.

As editor, however, I will not ignore articles that demonstrate that technology can be misused. I welcome papers on technology-related addictions and health risks, on consumer resistance to new technologies, on citizen rights to use technologies for counter-surveillance, on the complications of data custodianship and cloud computing, on the increasing pervasiveness of geomatics engineering, and on the rise of cyberbullying and offenses against the person committed online.

What I am most concerned with is that T&S Magazine - at least in mindspace - keep pace with the times. Let us see more papers on how engineering will advance humanity but let us also question whether or not technology will always advance humanity.

In this case, the problem was with the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), and with two U.S. federal agencies that are supposed to protect the public against hazardous substances and processes: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Much of the problem (which is quite complex) was due to a change in the chemicals used by WASA for protection against bacterial contamination. An important consequence of this was a great increase in the leaching into the water of lead from brass pipes.

WASA and the EPA rejected the analysis by Edwards, despite its being supported by substantial real world data. The CDC issued a report that downgraded the importance to health of lead in drinking water. Both WASA and the EPA withdrew financial backing for Edwards' work, putting him in a difficult position. But he persisted, at one point, paying his student assistants out of his own pocket. Ultimately all three agencies conceded that his position was valid, and steps to alleviate the problem were initiated.

Over the past three decades, somewhat more attention has been paid to ethics in engineering curricula, but no meaningful progress has been made to provide real support for engineers, such as Edwards and DeKort, who take such teaching seriously. While, several decades ago, the IEEE took some steps toward helping ethical engineers, it later backed out of this area completely. The IEEE Ethics and Member Conduct Committee and its members are now not allowed to give advice to engineers on ethical matters.


1. K. D. Stephan, K. Michael, M. G. Michael, L. Jacob, E. Anesta, "Social implications of technology: Past present and future", Proc. IEEE, vol. 100, no. 13, pp. 1752-1781, 2012.

Citation: Katina Michael, Social Implications of Technology: "Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Volume: 31, Issue: 3, Fall 2012, pp. 4 - 5, Date of Publication: 26 September 2012, DOI: 10.1109/MTS.2012.221139