CSE 275: Social Aspects of Technolgy and Science
Note: Because I encourage open classroom discussions, things will sometimes seem confusing, and even disorganized; however, I will always draw the discussion back together with various remarks along the way, or at the end; if you miss these remarks in class, you should be able find them in the online lecture notes. These notes are intended as an outline of the main points, rather than a careful exposition; moreover, they will not always be complete, nor will they always be available immediately after class.

1. Introduction

Our civilization is deeply involved with technology, and recently, especially with information technology; therefore so are all of us. Many people want to know, where is it all going? Newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and of course the internet, are all full of predictions, both dire and glorious. The result is enormous confusion, with thoughtfulness sacrificed for flashiness, i.e., for media market share. So better questions than "Where is it all going?" are "How can we think about all this?" and "How do we tell truth from trash?" In a way, this course is about being cynical, about questioning what you read, hear and see in the media. It is also about learning to think for yourself.

It is worth noting that most workers in industry, even high tech industry, spend much (maybe even most) of their time dealing with problems that have a large social dimension, rather than a purely technical character. Some examples are: How many people will want to buy this product? What will they want to do with it? How will they want to see it improved? How long will it take us to get it to market? How much will it cost us to make it? What is the trade off among product quality, time to market, and cost, and where is the optimum point? What plans does our competitor have?

When we ask questions like, "What is the Eifel tower?" or "What is the atomic bomb?" or "What is TV?" it is of course possible to give a purely technical answer, but such an answer will miss much of the most important information, which concerns why people would be interested in such a thing at all. If we ask "What is the internet?" an answer limited to the TCP/IP protocol would not be very satisfactory; in particular, other protocols could have been consistent with the same same social results (though there is an interesting sense in which many protocols could not have been so used); therefore explaining TCP/IP is very far from explaining the internet.

We will explore how a variety of social science approaches can be applied to technology and science, and especially to information technology. Some of the approaches considered are reductionism, narratology, economics, actor-network theory, and Kuhnian paradigms. There will be a number of case studies to illustrate these theories, and provide greater insight into various aspects of technology and science.

1.1 Acknowledgements

I thank Dr. Almira Karabeg for help in getting this course started; she co-taught it during its Fall 1998 incarnation as CSE 268D, and made many useful suggestions.


To Section 2 of CSE 275 notes.
To CSE 275 homepage
Maintained by Joseph Goguen
Last modified 15 October 1999