Deborah Johnson

Deborah Johnson teaches applied ethics in the Department of Science, Technology and Society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at UVA. She co-edited Technology and Society: Building Our Sociotechnical Future.

What book have you read over and over?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s a great book for raising the question of ethical responsibility for technology.

What nonfiction book best illuminates the intersection of technology and culture? Why?

The article “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” in Langdon Winner’s The Whale and the Reactor shows how values and technology are intertwined and how technological choices—which technologies we adopt and how they are designed—are political and social choices. In the case of the Long Island bridges, Winner claims—others dispute this—that when Robert Moses designed the bridges of Long Island in the 1920s, he intentionally had the bridges built at a height that would prevent public buses from fitting below the underpasses. If buses couldn’t fit below the underpasses, then the poor city dwellers couldn’t reach the beaches and the coast of Long Island would remain exclusively for the wealthy. Thus the bridge is an artifact that carries, and even reinforces, social hierarchy. Once you get the idea, you can see it in other places, such as sidewalks that discriminate against the handicapped or scissors that discriminate against left-handed people.

Wiebe Bijker’s Of Bicycles, Bakelite, and Bulbs focuses on the misapprehension many people have that technology develops in a logical or natural way. Bijker’s book shows that technology is socially shaped. The bicycle developed through a nonlinear process in which many different groups had influence—many of them not engineers. A wide variety of designs were tried and rejected. People had competing ideas about what bicycles should be for. There were those who wanted to use bikes for sport, leisurely entertainment or transportation. Women wanted bicycles that would fit with their clothes. The design of the bicycle that finally stabilized was the result of a struggle among all these interests. We tend to think that technological development is the purview of engineers and there is no room for public participation—other than through the marketplace. But that is far from reality.

What fiction book best illustrates the intersection of technology and culture? Why?

E.M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops.” It depicts a society, far into the future, when people are living underground—a catastrophe has left the earth uninhabitable. In some sense, the people live lives that are the epitome of what we value: They don’t have to work; each individual lives in a room; everything they need is provided. They communicate with one another through a system that is uncannily like the Internet—the story was written in 1909—and they spend their lives engaged in music, art, writing poetry and discussing things with one another. All of this is accomplished by what they refer to as “the machine.” As the story progresses, the machine starts breaking down and no one knows how to fix it. People have become wholly dependent on “the machine” but have lost all knowledge of how it works or how to do things without it. The story raises a host of questions about 21st-century industrialized societies; at the heart of it is our increasing dependence on technology and the knowledge we are losing about how to do things without machines.