Teaching STS: Are military weapons used to kill other soldiers or civilians?

There is a post by Fabio Rojas over at orgtheory.net that might be of interest to those of your in STS and those of you teaching STS.



He reports on a simple question: are military weapons used to kill other soldiers or civilians?

This question, if brought in front of a classroom, raises a few poignant issues for STS, engineering designs, and designers.

  1. STS has a long history — and this appears in, for example, Volti’s Society and Technological Change much more prominently than, for example, Sismondo’s Introduction to STS — of studying military technology and the rise of the post-WWII U.S. military-industrial-complex. Especially, when I was trained in STS, MacKenzie’s Inventing Accuracy, which showed how social influences impact even internally controlled technological devices (in his case, ballistic missiles, which are thought to be impervious to outside influence once launched … of course, these are two differnt forms of “influence”, but it still made for a great book about military technology and why a device is just so accurate, or just so fast, or just so efficient, and so on. The rise of civilian deaths, which was a deep concern in MacKenzie’s book and one of the manifold reasons enhanced efficiency was pursued in the first place, so this lands as an interesting issue on that regard, especially in comparison.
  2. The “use” literature has long argued that the boundary between use and design is much more porous than was once previously appreciated by the STS community. I’m thinking of How Users Matter edited by Oudshoorn and Pinch as a high-water mark in that line of work. In this case, we see all sorts of instances where use influences design directly during testing trials for particular products, instances where use influences design long after production when tools meet new contexts of use (like dental tools being used in art museums to clean ancient masks), and, of course, the SCOT discovery that uses can be imposed on new designs for public consumption. None of these approaches really captures what seems to be happening in this case, moreover, in some cases, while there is a fine line between what constitutes a “military” weapon versus something a civilian might own legally, some instances are very plain.
  3. While there is not a ton of literature that I am aware of appropriate for the student-level, this also raises the philosophical/ethical concern about what responsibility engineers have for how their designs are used. I don’t mean to come off as naïve, but this is a serious question for students considering the profession (and, in my opinion, for us more broadly as well).

So, this is a rich case to get at a number of issues regarding weapons, the (US) military, and the politics of how technologies are used.