3 The Social Context of Engineering & Technology

Key Themes & Ideas

  • Engineering and technology function in a social context
  • Technology is best understood as a techno-social system
  • Technology mediates our experience of and interaction with the world
  • The Control Dilemma shows us that our ability to control the effects of technology are inversely related to our ability to anticipate those effects
  • In mediating our world, technology can also change what we value or how we understand our values and principles
  • Guidance design, persuasive design, and coercive design are all general design approaches that involve technology mediating interactions with the social world

As it departed on its maiden voyage in April 1912, the Titanic was proclaimed the greatest engineering achievement ever.[1] Not merely was it the largest ship the world had seen, having a length of almost three football fields; it was also the most glamorous of ocean liners, complete with a tropical vinegarden restaurant and the first seagoing masseuse. It was touted as the first fully safe ship. Since the worst collision envisaged was at the juncture of two of its sixteen watertight compartments, and since it could float with any four compartments flooded, the Titanic was believed to be virtually unsinkable.

Buoyed by such confidence, the captain allowed the ship to sail full speed at night in an area frequented by icebergs, one of which tore a large gap in the ship’s side, flooding five compartments. Time remained to evacuate the ship, but there were not enough lifeboats to accommodate all the passengers and crew. British regulations then in effect did not foresee vessels of this size. Accordingly, only 825 places were required in lifeboats, sufficient for a mere one-quarter of the Titanic’s capacity of 3547 passengers and crew. No extra precautions had seemed necessary for an unsinkable ship. The result: 1522 dead (drowned or frozen) out of the 2227 on board for the Titanic’s first trip.[2]

The Titanic remains a haunting image of technological complacency. So many products of technology present some potential dangers that engineering should be regarded as an inherently risky activity. In order to underscore this fact and help to explore its ethical implications, we suggest that engineering should be viewed as an experimental process. It is not, of course, an experiment conducted solely in a laboratory under controlled conditions. Rather, it is an experiment on a social scale involving human subjects.

There are conjectures that the Titanic left England with a coal fire on board, that this made the captain rush the ship to New York, and that water entering the coal bunkers through the gash caused an explosion and greater damage to the compartments. Others maintain that embrittlement of the ship’s steel hull in the icy waters caused a much larger crack than a collision would otherwise have produced. Shipbuilders have argued that carrying the watertight bulkheads up higher on such a big ship instead of allowing less obstructed space on the passenger decks for arranging cabins would have kept the ship afloat. However, what matters most is that the lack of lifeboats and the difficulty of launching those available from the listing ship prevented a safe exit for two-thirds of the persons on board, where a safe exit is a mechanism or procedure for escape from harm in the event a product fails.

1. The Social Context of Engineering & Technology

Engineering does not occur in a vacuum and technology is neither created nor maintained in a vacuum. Every individual engineer and every engineering firm or company is embedded in society. As such, both engineers as people and engineering as a profession are influenced by their society while also having the power to influence that society going forward. Consider, for instance, the lack of lifeboats on the Titanic. The engineers who signed off on the designs with such limited lifeboats did so, in part, because that is all society required of them via its regulations.

Not only do the law and official regulations influence engineering decisions, but so does public perception. Consider the idea of ‘efficiency’, a common term in engineering and technology. It is generally agreed that it is better to make an activity more efficient and, within the technical sciences, ‘efficiency’ is often understood in a purely quantitative way: it is a ratio of energy input to energy output. However, there are a variety of likely ‘efficient’ changes we could make (or previously had) which are nevertheless excluded from consideration: child labor was in many ways more efficient than adult labor and yet no one currently builds machinery that is reliant on a small child being able to fit into certain crevices.

Old Sporting Bicycle
The “Penny-farthing” sporting bicycle

Other examples abound. For instance, Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker showed that social forces directed the development path of bicycles in their early history.[3] Early on, there were two types of bicycles: a sporting bicycle with a high front wheel that made it fast but unstable and a more “utilitarian” design with a smaller front wheel to promote stability at the expense of speed. Although originally designed for different purposes – the sporting bicycle for athletes and the other for ordinary transportation – the sporting bicycle never really caught on and eventually disappeared. Society, rather than the designers, determined that the sporting bicycle was unnecessary.

In the other direction, we can see the way technology has influenced and changed society, often in unexpected or unpredictable ways. There are obvious cases: speed bumps effectively force people to drive more slowly and walking paths and streetlamps encourage foot traffic to follow specified paths. But there are also less obvious cases: the invention of the printing press revolutionized European civilization in many ways, including being a major contributing factor in the Protestant Reformation, thus drastically changing the religious landscape of the entire world. More recent technologies like cell phones and social media have also heavily influenced social relationships by encouraging instantaneous and constant communication and altering what it means to call someone a “friend”.

And then there are the more general ways technology often influences society: changing what we consider possible, required, or impermissible. Before advances in medical technologies, we would simply expect someone to die from cancer but now because it is possible to treat many cancers we find it morally problematic when those treatments are not available to someone. Technology also changes what we can expect from our lives: what sorts of interactions are possible, where it is possible to live and work, what sorts of jobs even exist.

In short, all of these examples come together to show that engineering and technology function in a social context: technology simultaneously exerts influence over society and is influenced by society. This, then, implies that technology professionals both exert influence over society through their designs and, in turn, are influenced by various social factors in the creation and deployment of their designs.

Objects make us, in the very same process that we make them.[4]Engineering’s influence on society is most evident in the context of disruptive technologies: technologies that significantly alter the way individuals, industries, businesses, or society at large operate. The internet and, later, smartphones, are both prime examples of disruptive technologies that have substantially changed our social world. Looking ahead, we can predict that technologies like Generalized Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, and perhaps Blockchain will all end up, if embraced by society, radically transforming the social world as well. But even less “innovative” technologies can be disruptive: autonomous vehicles are not that far removed from existing vehicles in many ways and yet we can imagine that a society which has embraced autonomous vehicles may look very different from our own. For instance, imagine the changes to peoples’ daily lives and physical and mental health if traffic jams and collisions were a thing of the past!

Examples of the Social Context of Technology

  • Although human and non-human animal cloning is technically feasible, it is widely opposed by (nearly) every society and thus has barely progressed
  • We have substantial power to genetically modify crops but genetic modification is heavily opposed in certain areas of the world, such as Europe and some areas of Africa, thus stifling development
  • Many towns and cities in the United States are designed around the personal automobile, indicating the impact personal automobiles have had on American society
  • More and more of our social interactions are now technologically mediated: we speak via phones, use video chat, text message, play online video games with text and voice chat, etc.
  • A significant portion of contemporary occupations only exist because of various enabling technologies such as computers and automobiles

2. Techno-Social Systems

There is a deeper way in which technology functions in a social context. Our previous examples of technology affecting society and society affecting technology largely treated society and technology as distinct even if interactive. But that is not quite an accurate picture, for in reality technology is embedded in society and it only functions as part of a system composed of both human/social elements and technological elements. Whether a piece of technology does what it was designed to do is not merely a matter of its technical design, but also how it ties into relevant social structures.

We use the term technological artifact (or simply artifact) to refer to any object produced by human craft for some purpose. This can include basic products but also large-scale engineering projects.

To put this another way, if we really want to understand the function of any piece of technology, we cannot simply examine the technological artifact in isolation. There is no sense to be made of what a smartphone does without reference to the broader social world in which it is embedded. This includes the background conditions that make its functions possible, such as computer chips and cellular data towers. But it also includes relevant social conditions: people having a desire to communicate with each other or have instant access to distraction.

All this is to say that when we speak of technology, for the purposes of understanding it, we are really speaking of techno-social systems: the complex interactions between technological artifacts and aspects of the social world. Understanding this can open up new avenues for exploration and development: for it encourages us to pay attention to how actual people actually use things, rather than merely focusing on how we as technological designers may intend for things to be used.

3. Technological Mediation

We can deepen our thinking about techno-social systems and the social context of technology by exploring the Theory of Technological Mediation.[5] Technological mediation is a way of thinking about technology that aims to take technological artifacts seriously by putting our focus on what these artifacts do. This can sound like an odd approach, for most of us our used to purely instrumental ways of thinking about technology. On these instrumentalist approaches, technological artifacts do not do anything. Rather, they are simply passive tools (objects) used by humans (subjects) to achieve human ends. Put another way, the instrumental approach regards technological artifacts as dead matter upon and through which humans can exercise their will.

Mediation theory, however, orients us away from this instrumentalist view of technology as passive. Instead, it holds that technological artifacts play an active role in our lives by always mediating the way we engage with the world around us. And while this may seem uncontroversial when it comes to technological artifacts that seem to ‘act’, like robots or digital avatars, mediation theory suggests that this is true of all technological artifacts. Even simple artifacts like hammers, glasses, or the fountain pen mediate our lives.

Technological artifacts mediate two important aspects of our existence in the world: our perception of the world, and our actions in it. In so doing, technological artifacts change who and what we are.[6]

A visual representation of Technological Mediation Theory
Technology as mediating our being-in-the-world (from Hauser et al., 2018)

When technology mediates our perception of the world, it may amplify or reduce certain aspects of the world to be experienced. When technology mediates our actions in the world, its design or implementation is such that it is inviting, discouraging, or inhibiting certain actions. We can see this at play with a simple technological artifact: the hammer. The hammer invites certain actions like using it to drive nails (rather than attempting to press them with your bare hands) while discouraging others such as fastening two boards with glue.[7] The simple hammer also changes our perception of the world. There is, of course, the old adage that “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. But more precisely, we can notice that our focus is drawn to the head of the nail, searching out a proper contact point between hammer and nail as much of the rest of the world fades out of view. When holding a hammer, the world becomes more “hammerable” than it was before: certain features stand out as more or less inviting to my hammer use. In both subtle and less subtle ways, engaging with the world in a way mediated by the hammer changes that engagement in profound ways.

Ethics is traditionally concerned with what humans, or other moral agents, do. In the context of technology, this often involves asking how humans should or should not use technological artifacts. But if technology mediates our interaction with the world in the ways just discussed, then we should expand our ethical thinking beyond what humans do and ask: what do technological artifacts do? Asking this sort of question can open up two useful avenues for social and ethical reflection.

First, mediation theory can enhance our moral perception and imagination. It does this by helping us identify and describe morally salient aspects of human-technology relations that would otherwise remain hidden. Mediation theory encourages us to ask ethical questions about the way technology enhances and diminishes our perception of the world and the ways it invites and inhibits our actions in the world. Some technologies inhibit actions we want inhibited and direct our focus in helpful ways. But other technologies may encourage actions we would rather people avoid or discourage us from paying attention to morally important issues.

Second, mediation theory can enhance our moral reasoning abilities. Once we become aware of the ways that technology mediates our perception of and interaction with the world, we are now in a position to take seriously our responsibilities to design, implement, and interact with technology with that mediation in mind. Thus, once we realize that technology can be used to discourage or even outright forbid certain actions, we can now ask under what conditions technology should discourage or forbid such actions. Thus, now when we reason about how to design or implement technology, we are in position to pay closer attention to its design features rather than largely off-loading our ethical thinking to the mere use of the technology.

In short, mediation theory suggests that it is the moral responsibility of technology designers to predict and anticipate the mediating effects of their designs and to design their technologies to mediate well.

Example of Technological Mediation

In Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things, Peter-Paul Verbeek illustrates technological mediation by detailing how an obstetric ultrasound alters our moral perception and reasoning.

From a purely instrumental perspective (i.e., absent the benefits of mediation theory), we may simply describe an ultrasound as a tool for providing visual access to a fetus in utero. In this way it enhances our perception and can provide us with access to certain types of potentially relevant information, such as the fetus’s health.

But once we consider the ultrasound with mediation theory, asking what an ultrasound does as a piece of technology (rather than just what do humans do with it as a tool), we gain new insight.

First, consider perception: an ultrasound casts the fetus as a distinct individual unborn baby. It does this, first, by encouraging us to focus on the display screen rather than the mother, thereby separating the fetus from the mother in our minds. Additionally, the ultrasound screen enhances the size of the fetus such that it appears to be much closer to the size of a newborn infant. This all suggests how an ultrasound changes our perception of the world (and, in particular, the fetus and its relation to the mother). But it also changes our moral perception: the existence of the ultrasound and its ability to detect features of the fetus encourages the further medicalization of pregnancy and establishes the womb as a site of surveillance. Finally, by establishing the fetus as an independent unborn baby, the ultrasound contributes to a shift in how we think about the responsibilities of (prospective) parents. For even before the child is born it is now an independent being that must be regarded wholly independently from the mother.

Second, consider reasoning: being able to see the biological sex of the fetus as well as potential defects now opens up new avenues of moral thinking that are simply eliminated without the technology. Decisions about whether to continue with the pregnancy can now be made on the basis of the biological sex of the child or the presence of birth defects. Similarly, in contributing to the further medicalization of pregnancy, parents now become responsible for their choice of birthing methods in a way that is not possible if there simply are no choices.

This mediation analysis of the ultrasound suggests that designers should be asking a variety of questions that are likely currently ignored:

  • Could the visual presentation of the fetus be altered to better reflect scale or the fetus’s interconnections with the mother?
  • Could ultrasounds be designed in such a way that parents could use them at home, rather than necessitating involvement in the hospital system?

4. Technological Mediation & The Control Dilemma

Technological mediation theory tells us that technology influences people and society. And keeping that in mind can allow us to potentially predict what those influences may be prior to the (wide-scale) release of the technology into society. This is certainly a key reason to be familiar with the theory. However, it would be too quick to believe that we always can, in fact, predict how technology will affect society (or how society will affect society). And a key explanation for this was first developed by philosopher David Collingridge and is now known as The Control Dilemma (or sometimes The Collingridge Dilemma after David Collingridge):[8]

The Control Dilemma. When technology is at an early stage of development we have the power to control it, but we don’t know what its social impacts will be. When technology is at a late stage of development, we know what its social impacts are, but we lose the power to control it.

The Control Dilemma, like all dilemmas, establishes two paths (“di-”), both of which are problematic in some way. We want to be able to control the introduction of technology into society to limit negative effects, but we cannot really know the effects until we introduce the technology into society. But if we introduce the technology into society to figure out the effects, then we are not in as good of a position to control the technology and its effects.

Thus, even as technological mediation theory and general awareness of the social context of engineering and technology empower us to better direct the development of technology and its introduction into society, the control dilemma suggests our power will always be somewhat limited.

The classic control dilemma is predominantly focused on “hard impacts” of technology: effects on health, safety, and the environment, etc. But technological mediation theory suggests that technology can also have “soft impacts” – it can effect, over time, our social values and principles, thereby not just affecting what we already care about (as in the hard impacts) but also changing what we care about. As such, philosophers Olya Kudina & Peter-Paul Verbeek have recently argued that there is a second version of the control dilemma that emphasizes these “soft impacts”:

Moral Control Dilemma. “[W]hen we develop technologies on the basis of specific value frameworks, we do not know their social implications yet, but once we know these implications, the technologies might have already changed the value frameworks to evaluate these implications.” (Kudina & Verbeek 2019, 293)

In recent times, this moral control dilemma is perhaps best illustrated by the changing understanding of the value of privacy in light of recent digital technologies with substantial surveillance possibilities. Before the widespread existence of cell phones with cameras, most live music venues banned photos and videos. Now with the increasing use of video doorbells we are forced to ask what counts as a reasonable expectation of privacy own your own property. The increasing availability of consumer-level drones similarly raises questions about what privacy requires and why privacy is important. The upshot, then, is that although we may have started the development of these technologies with one framework for understanding privacy, by the time the technologies are created and introduced into society, they effectively have forced us to change our framework.

Refer back to the ultrasound example of technological mediation and you can similarly see how technology can force (or at least strongly encourage) us to change our moral frameworks. But, again, to reassert the dilemma: although we can know, in general, that technology may have this effect, it is unlikely that we can wholly anticipate the change or wholly control it.

5. Design Interactions

Our discussion of technological mediation made clear that the design of a technological artifact can have a substantial effect on those who interact with it and the social world more broadly. And we concluded that discussion by noting the importance of taking seriously the responsibility to design technology with its mediating effects in mind. In order to help us do that, we can introduce three common types of design features that are aimed at encouraging certain types of social interactions.[9]

5.1. Guidance Design

Much of our technologically mediated world involves forms of guidance: we use images or other tools to indicate to people how to interact with a product or how to use the technological artifact to achieve their ends. Consider all the signage in a building: bright exit signs, labels on doors that say “push” or “pull”. Many signs include images, text, and braille to ensure people are guided in multiple ways.

Car handles and textured surfaces guide behavior
Car handles are designed to guide a user’s hand to open the door. Textured floors guide people to avoid harm

When we use Guidance Design, our goal is simply to facilitate people in doing what they want to do. We are not encouraging them to do anything in particular, but rather making it easier for them to do what they already want to do. In some cases we are guiding interaction with the technological artifact itself: labeling a button ‘power’ or using a symbol that designates power simply guides the user who may want to power on the device. In other cases we are guiding interaction with the larger social world: textured walking strips at curbs help those who are sight-impaired navigate the world.

5.2. Persuasive Design

Sometimes our goal is not simply to help people do what they already want to do, but to actually encourage them to do something they otherwise would not do (or, at least, would be less likely to do). For instance, in the Netherlands some of the live speed checking signs on roads output a “sad face” when the driver is exceeding the speed limit. The goal, of course, is to encourage the driver to slow down.

Persuasive design engages peoples’ minds just like guidance design, but does it with more of a ‘push’. Whereas in guidance we assume the person already wants to do the thing we are guiding them to do with persuasion our default assumption is the person would not otherwise do the thing we are now persuading them to do. Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone who interacts with the technology actually needs persuasion, but in general we assume people will need some sort of ‘push’ to engage in and continue the behavior. Nonetheless, it is important to note that persuasive design does not force any sort of behavior, it simply aims to make it more likely.

Technology can persuade us to engage in desired behaviors
The “sad face” speed checker. And a staircase painted as a piano to encourage use

Persuasive design can be used for good or ill. Some companies have embraced persuasive design to “persuade” users to use devices more: smartphone “addiction” is a real thing. Often these uses of persuasive design aimed at making people engage with the technology more are dubbed “addictive design” to emphasize the nefarious aim of encouraging people to become ‘addicted’ to the technology.

But persuasive design need not focus on persuading a person to simply interact with the technology more. Instead, as the earlier examples indicate, persuasive design can be aimed at helping people develop good habits like regularly engaging in physical activity or turning off electronics at a certain point in the night.

We can often get a grip on whether the use of persuasive design is morally troubling or not by thinking about what value(s) the design is focused on. All persuasive design aims to encourage us to focus on certain values rather than others, and so we can ask whether those values should be encouraged and also whether the design is successfully encouraging our focus on those values.

5.3. Coercive Design

In some cases we need people to effectively guarantee people will engage in certain behaviors. Although persuasive design makes it more likely than guidance, persuasive design still leaves open the possibility that people do not do what we are wanting them to do. In these cases, we may turn to coercive design.

Examples of Technological Coercion
Speed bumps force a car to slow down. Heavy machinery often requires two hands to operate

If it is essential that drivers slow down, a “sad face” speed checker is not going to do the job. Instead, we may install speed bumps as they force a driver to slow down (lest they have no care about their vehicle). Or, if we designing dangerous machinery and want to ensure it cannot be operated without someone actively present, we might turn to requiring someone to always have their foot on a pedal and hand on a button for the machinery to work. We could use persuasive design to achieve the same goal, but it is likely a few people would lose fingers and toes in the process. Coercive design, on the other hand, effectively eliminates any thinking or choice by the person interacting with the technology.

To put things more broadly, coercive design involves design features aimed at requiring or eliminating certain behaviors. The examples above were all about requiring certain behaviors, but we can also see coercion at play in eliminating certain behaviors (at least among certain people): some of the overpass bridges constructed on Long Island in New York were intentionally designed to be too low for city busses to pass through. This was done by the designer as a means of keeping low-income people away from Long Island beaches.

Like persuasive design, coercive design can be used for good or ill. And like persuasive design, how we evaluate a particular instance of coercive design will largely depend on the values at play in our decision to coerce. When we install various coercive safety features in heavy machinery, our aim is to ensure no one is harmed by the machinery and so that may be acceptable. But when we use design to exclude certain people or prevent permissible behaviors (as occurs with “hostile design” such as bars on park benches preventing the homeless from sleeping on the bench) then we have engaged in unethical design.

Check Your Understanding

After successfully completing this chapter, you should be able to answer all the following questions:

  • What does it mean for engineering and technology to function in a social context? What are some examples of engineering/technology functioning in a social context?
  • What are disruptive technologies and how do they illustrate the idea that engineering and technology function in a social context?
  • What is a technological artifact? How do they relate to techno-social systems?
  • What does Technological Mediation Theory tell us about technological artifacts?
  • What is The Moral Control Dilemma? How does it relate to the standard Control Dilemma?
  • What are the three common types of design features? Can you come up with original examples of each?

References & Further Reading

Collingridge, D. (1980). The Social Control of Technology. Continuum International Publishing.

de Boer, B., Hoek, J., & Kudina, O. (2018). “Can the technological mediation approach improve technology assessment? A critical view from ‘within’,” Journal of Responsible Innovation 5(3): 299-315.

Dorrestijn, S. (2017). “The Care of our Hybrid Selves: Ethics in Times of Technical Mediation,” Foundations of Science 22(2): 311-321.

Hauser, S., Oogjes, D., Wakkary, R., & Verbeek, P.P. (2018). “An annotated portfolio on doing postphenomenology through research products,” DIS 2018 – Proceedings of the 2018 Designing Interactive Systems Conference, 459-472.

Kudina, O. & Verbeek, P.-P. (2018). “Ethics from Within: Google Glass, the Collingridge Dilemma, and the Mediated Value of Privacy,” Science, Technology, & Human Values 44(2): 291-314.

Verbeek, P.-P. (2005). What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency and Design. The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Verbeek, P.-P. (2011). Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things. The University of Chicago Press.

Winner, L. (1980). “Do Artifacts have Politics?” Daedalus 109(1): 121-136.

  1. The discussion that follows was originally presented by Mike Martin and Roland Schinzinger in Ethics in Engineering (1989)
  2. Lord, 1976; Wade, 1980; Davie, 1986.
  3. Trevor J. Pinch & Wiebe E. Bijker (1984). “The social construction of facts and artefacts: or How the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other,” Social Studies of Science 14.3: 399-441.
  4. Daniel Miller (2010), Stuff. Polity Press.
  5. This section is inspired by, and portions of it taken from, Dr. Jan Peter Bergen's "Technological Mediation and Ethics", published by the 4TU Centre for Ethics and Technology under a CC-A-SA license.
  6. In mediation theory, this is an aspect of the "co-constitution of humans and artifacts". Without human subjects, there would be no artifacts. However, without technological artifacts, human subjects as we know them would likewise not exist. There is an ongoing co-shaping of humans and technology.
  7. The hammer may invite certain other actions as well, such as the use of it as a paperweight. This connects to the idea of multistability, which indicates that specific artifacts invite a specific, varied, but limited set of actions, some of which the artifact was not specifically designed for.
  8. David Collingridge (1980). The Social Control of Technology. London: Frances Pinter.
  9. The tool and techniques described here are derived from the De-scription activity created by Jet Gipson and the Product Impact Tool created by Steven Dorrestijn & Wouter Eggink


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The Primacy of the Public by Marcus Schultz-Bergin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.