Understanding the relationship between technology and society is crucial for ensuring that technological solutions to the many challenges facing the world lead to a better future for everyone.

That’s the premise of a recently released second edition of Technology and Society: Building our Sociotechnical Future, a textbook co-authored by Deborah G. Johnson, the emeritus Anne Shirley Carter Olsson Professor of Applied Ethics and interim chair of the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science. Her co-author is Jameson M. Wetmore, associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University.

The book is a compilation of readings with chapter introductions by Johnson and Wetmore. The authors organized the readings to make an argument that we have the power to steer our sociotechnical future, but only if we understand the social implications of the technologies we design, build and use, and only if we understand the social forces that shape those technologies as they are being developed. 

“As an individual, I make some choices about the technologies I use, and these choices are important,” Johnson said. “But a wide range of factors out of my control make a bigger difference. These range from government regulation to cultural attitudes, historical events, economic policies and more.”

Deborah Johnson

Deborah G. Johnson, interim chair of the Department of Engineering and Society

She noted that it has always been the case that some groups do not benefit equally and are even harmed by the technological choices that have been made.

“The scientists, engineers and policymakers of tomorrow — the students we are teaching today — will need to think about the implications of the decisions they make and ensure that everyone benefits from the technologies that are adopted,” she said.

The authors have thoroughly updated the second edition of the book, which was first published in 2009 and has since become an important text for undergraduate education in science, technology and society. Johnson and Wetmore kept about a third of the selections from the first edition while adding 21 new readings that reflect ongoing scholarship and current thinking in the field.

Johnson said she and Wetmore intentionally focused on prominently featuring issues of race, gender and equity in relation to technology — helping fill a gap in the literature that existed when the first edition was published.

Identifying essays and articles to include was challenging because Johnson and Wetmore wanted the readings to be readily accessible to students at various levels and readers of all backgrounds, not just those in scholarly fields. Johnson said she and Wetmore designed the book with undergraduate students in mind – engineering as well as liberal arts students – but also to be of interest to many others.

She believes science, technology and society should be thought of as the new liberal arts.

“I suppose every textbook author thinks that every student should read their book, so I hesitate to say this, but I believe every student, no matter what their major is, should have the science, technology and society foundational concepts and frameworks so they understand how technology affects their lives, and will do so, for better or worse, in the future,” she said.

The book collects the writings of influential thinkers, whose views represent a range of perspectives. The beginning section presents visions of the future, both utopian and dystopian, using science fiction and other forms of writing depicting the future. Subsequent sections provide theoretical frameworks, a focus on the intertwined relationship between values and technological choices, and cases illustrating the complexities of the technology-society relationship. Finally, the authors return to the future to address the sociotechnical challenges we face today, including cybersecurity, equitable sustainability, geoengineering and brain enhancement.

The authors intended for the text’s theoretical frameworks and selective use of case studies to offer students a positive way to understand and live their roles in shaping future technology.

“For an undergraduate textbook, you want to give students hope that they can make the world a better place, and inspire them,” Johnson said. “When young people get out into the world, they are under such pressure from their bosses and institutions to conform with the status quo. We all need some inspiration to keep pushing for change that will make the world better.”

To read what others have said about Technology and Society: Building our Sociotechnical Future, Second Edition, and for a series of author videos describing their work, visit the book’s webpage at mitpress.mit.edu.