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.

Plagiarism in Dissertations Ending Careers

Yesterday, BBC News’ “Viewpoint” series ran a special on “The Spectre of Plagiarism Haunting Europe“, which documents how some high-profile politicians (and academics) are stepping-down from their posts after plagiarism was discovered in their dissertation theses and publicized via Wiki pages.



The suggestion, in the concluding remarks, is:

Dissertations need to be published online with open access to permit easy checking, and a random sample of theses defended in the past five years needs to be reviewed in order to identify weak points. However, there is currently no funding for such measures, so it’s unclear whether German universities will really get serious about plagiarism, or keep muddling on.

Evidence suggests this is not an exclusively German plague, so similar measures may be required in other European countries too, possibly all, to ensure that higher degrees awarded in Europe’s universities continue to attract the respect they deserve.

This sort of “watchdog” work by experts and non-experts alike seems to hold back the tide of “creeping tolerance for scientific misconduct” in academia … pieces like this one, and many more, which are bound to come, should be front-page news for students and faculty alike.

Teaching STS: Leap Seconds and the social construction of time?

This year is a great year to teach STS because we have a leap year, and students can learn alot about STS by studying time.


As many of you know, “time” is a social construction, and it makes for a great topic to teach students about standards, units of reality, and the basic infrastructure that makes “modern” life possible. What also makes time such a great topic is how seemingly “naturalized” it has become (or been packaged to be). Time corresponds with the predictability of the Earth’s revolutions; times is, ironically, one student said, “in synch with natural rhythms.”

Leap years remind us where all that went wrong. It is important to convey to students one idea above all: the second has changed duration over time.

When early numerized “time” was being developed under the sexigecimal system (system of count according to measures of 60) by Egyptians and Bablyonians, the whole day was being “diced” into smaller and smaller units, down to the second. And this lasted for a long time, although the second was occasionally refined, it was not until 1954 that the International Committee for Weights and Measures redefined the duration of the second, this time in fairly scientific terms. Six years later, in light of the advent of the atomic clock, the second was redefined once again. Suddenly, the accounting for time started with smallest unit and “days” where built from there (rather than the inverse process, where the day was the unit to dice-up into smaller units).

Now, what’s interesting about this, in light of the leap year, is that there is now a rogue second that must be accounted for:

The International Telecommunication Union’s Radiocommunication Assembly, otherwise known as the international authority that keeps close tabs on time, will debate a philosophical question this week: They will decide whether to eliminate the leap second and in doing so break its tie to astronomical time.

Leap seconds

are added occasionally to synchronise ultra-accurate atomic clocks with the real length of the day, which varies slightly because of irregularities in Earth’s rotation around its own axis.

What is so nice about this example is that it will be though scientific consensus that we determine whether or not the, and I love the irony here,

The world’s timekeepers will decide … to break the age-old link between their official clocks and astronomical time based on Earth’s rotation.

This is a great lesson for social construction of science, philosophy of science, the role of induction, and a good, basic lesson (if properly fleshed-out) on challenging taken-for-grantedness in our daily lives (a good follow-up too: check out how the weight of the gram has transformed in light of radiation; both are good examples about how the units of measure that “make reality” are themselves far from uniform and stable).

Teaching STS: Where iPhones come from…


Anyone teaching STS or related areas knows that a good reading is sometimes hard to find, especially if you’re not teaching graduate classes. Let’s face it, while you or I might love to discuss Law’s Portuguese ships or Akrich’s photovoltaic cells, students probably would rather hear about cell phones or electric cars (although, probably not Callon’s 1987 paper about them).

One solution I’ve come to is the “listening assignment” and here is why: readings in STS are geared almost entirely to advanced students, hence, we need more introductory materials that are direct, dynamic, and, per my preference, not second-hand regurgitation of more complex materials (even thought that is valuable for other reasons), and so I’ve started to incorporate “listening assignments” in place of a few reading assignments. Surely, students do read in my courses, but I’ve been trying this out for the last few semesters, and it has been sort of neat.

In listening assignments, students listen to a radio show or a pod cast, and that becomes the “baseline” for the day’s lesson and discussion.

I just found this about where iPhones come from, which will make a great listening assignment given that its well done and that students have an almost unending curiosity about (and attention span for) phones. This opens the door for discussion about the ethics of consumption, multinational corporations, conflict minerals, etc.

If you use it or try out a listening assignment, let me know, I’d love to discuss it over e-mail: njr12@psu.edu

Freakonomics on the rocks?

As it happens, Freakonomics is being taken-on by Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung in this new post.

Oh, I just realized: this is a great way to teach students about scientific communication (and, perhaps, even touches on ideas related to the public understanding of science, only science means economics here [peppered with a good bit of sociology for garnish]).

And, there are even some cool pics to help visualize the “problem” as it were.

Here is the way that it goes (especially in SuperFreakonomics):


Here is how it might work better:


Teaching STS: Geographic Diffusion of Facebook

The diffusion of innovations is a common topic worth discussing in basic courses in sociology, usually on the topic of cultural diffusion, as well as STS courses. While it is often not a problem to spread the good word about diffusion, a contemporary example, the spread of facebook, provides some interesting fodder for in-class discussion and student exploration.


Here is a website, inside facebook, with some interesting images that students, in my experience, will be interested in using, discussing, and perhaps hazarding a few hypotheses. The images are US-focused, which is not ideal; however, explanations for some of the geographic distribution of facebook will help students to really understand how ideas like this spread.

What’s nice about it, in my opinion, is that it provides some opportunitites to discuss the various explanations for diffusion. For example, was facebook expensive to adopt early on as compared to later on? Was facebook an obvious improvement on technologies that preceded it? How did one “adopt” facebook? Do people “use” facebook differently? Is it analytically meaningful to count every “personal facebook page” as an adoption, even if it is rarely or never used? Why did facebook spread geographically first and then how do we explain further developments in adoption patterns?

I am contemplating an in-class assignment where students break into groups, assess the images and then present their conceivably competing understandings of why facebook spread the way it did, and, importantly, not the way it didn’t…

Teaching STS: Challenging Technological Determinism in Caliente, NV

If you were raised on STS in America, then it is likely that you read about the death of a train town named Caliente, NV. This is:

Death by Dieselization: A Case Study in the Reaction to Technological Change
W. F. Cottrell
American Sociological Review
Vol. 16, No. 3 (Jun., 1951), pp. 358-365
(article consists of 8 pages)
Published by: American Sociological Association
This is not a bad read, and easy for instructors to challenge on the grounds of “technological determinism” on two accounts:
1. the town did not die because of the out-of-control technological advance of locomotives, and instead the government-military complex invested heavily in diesel locomotoves as part of mid-century war time efforts (potentially even linking technological advance with patriotism such that any resistance to the technology was seen as anti-American).


2. the town did not die because of the out-of-control technological advance of locomotives because like so many towns of this age and this sort, it had a uni-dimensional economy such that the town was susceptible to new technology that challenged the source of their economic security.
I like to emphasize on the account during steam train advances, however, as they are even more telling about this “technological determinism” that seems so easy to swallow for students. Sure, Cottrell shows how Caliente, NV, was run asunder by the advent and subsequent quickened spread of diesel trains on the American landscape.


However, during advances to the steam train, and I am referring to low-tensile boilers as compared to high-tensile boilers (and this is somewhat simplistic of train buffs, so please forgive me), it was towns like Caliente, NV, that gained the most! A student and I created this set of PowerPoint slides to explain this (you’ll have to download it to see the animation — the small white dots are “towns” set every 100 miles from the port town): check it out here (note, you’ll have to download it to see the cool animation).


As some of you know, I work in Altoona, PA, which was once a heart of the Pennsylvania Rail Road. Altoona, to some extent, suffered a similar death as Caliente, NV, to use Cottrell’s words.

Teaching STS with "A fist full of quarters"

One way I teach students the philosophy of science is by using the documentary “The King of Kong: A fist full of quarters.”



In the early 1980s, legendary Billy Mitchell set a Donkey Kong record that stood for almost 25 years. This documentary follows the assault on the record by Steve Wiebe, an earnest teacher from Washington who took up the game while unemployed. The top scores are monitored by a cadre of players and fans associated with Walter Day, an Iowan who runs Funspot, an annual tournament. Wiebe breaks Mitchell’s record in public at Funspot, and Mitchell promptly mails a controversial video tape of himself setting a new record. So Wiebe travels to Florida hoping Mitchell will face him for the 2007 Guinness World Records. Will the mind-game-playing Mitchell engage; who will end up holding the record? Written by <jhailey@hotmail.com>

The film is full of ideas from the philosophy of science. For example, logical positivists were obsessed with (1) establishing theories only from data and (2) considering what evidence either falsifies or verifies a theory. In the film, Steve Weibe, the up and comer in the world of competitive gaming, sends a score into Walter Day, the guy that runs the world record center, but the score is ultimately rejected because while the video tape recording appeared legitimate, the machine he was playing on was questionable. This one is good for the falsificationists too: the score he had could not be verified because of questions concerning the video game machine he used; however, because there was no concrete evidence — merely a hunch — of tampering, the score could not be entirely falsified either. Consensus among a group of experts emerged upon reviewing the evidence of Steve’s claim to have the new highest score on Donkey Kong. This nicely emphasizes the role of experts and how consensus over reality is as important as “reality” itself.

Now, thinking all the way back to Shapin’s work on early laboratories and experiments, Steve is invited to attend an annual competition where he can achieve his highest score “live” so that all the other experts can witness first hand his skill at Donkey Kong. He does, and the entire community of competitive gamers more or less warms to the newcomer. This is not a bad lesson in the role of social connections and acceptance of newcomers in science. This is a place to begin discussions of Merton’s norms of science, and, in particular, disinterestedness. However, there is much more to say about functionalism. His competitor, Billy Mitchell, the previous record holder and longstanding insider, sends in, at the last possible moment, a video tape of a score that beats the score Steve just accomplished in person. Merton reminds us that what is good for science tends to advance it. In this case, what’s good for Walter Day and competitive gaming also happens to be what’s good for Billy Mitchell. Bill’s sketchy video score is accepted and immediately posted on-line for the world of competitive gamers to see. Additionally, and in violation of the norm of communism, Billy’s tape is not shared with Steve, even thought Steve’s original tape, which was rejected, was shared with Billy.

The documentary is also funny in places, and it does a nice job showing how a group of gaming experts arrive at conclusions about the nature of reality through norm following, norm violation, and, importantly, consensus. If you teach STS, check it out; I’ve even got a sheet prepared for students to follow along (write me at njr12@psu.edu if you’d like to see it). Also, if you’re just interested, then check it out too.

One closing remark: those old games like Donkey Kong required a very different skill set as compared to contemporary games like Halo or Neverwinter Nights. It is nice to remind new students that games used to be hard in a much different way.

Teaching STS: Controversies

Teaching controversies is a mainstay of STS; if you need a good film to show, check out “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial” replete with Steve Fuller weighing-in on intelligent design…

Also, I have a handout already made to help students to navigate the documentary. Write me if you you’d like a copy or if you’ve used this clip for your own courses (send to: njr12 at psu.edu).

Is there such thing as a good introductory book to STS?

A couple of introductory STS texts are listed below — what’s missing? What do you use?

Bauchspies, Wenda, Jennifer Croissant, and Sal Restivo (2005). Science, Technology, and Society: A Sociological Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005).

Fuller, Steve (1993). Philosophy, rhetoric, and the end of knowledge: The coming of science and technology studies. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. (2nd edition, with James H. Collier, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004)

Kleinmann, Daniel (1991). Science and Technology Stidies. Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (January 16, 1991)

Sismondo, Sergio. (2009). An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies. Wiley-Blackwell; 2 edition (October 20, 2009)

Volti, Rudi (2001). Society and technological change. New York: Worth.

Is anyone satisfied with Wikipedia’s STS page?

Last semester, while teaching STS 200 “Topics in Science and Technology Studies,” to primarily engineering students at Penn State, I found something peculiar. Students complained — some a little, some a lot — that I was asking them test questions whose answers were not to be found on-line and, in particular, on Wikipedia’s STS page.

Is anyone satisfied with Wikipedia’s STS page? I don’t even see the terms “ICT” or “infrastructure.” What is to be done with this Wikipedia page?

Now, I realize that the “core” of STS is a running problem in the field, as there is no center to speak of or fully shared history. This is obvious in many ways, but there is one that I have routinely found of interest: upper-level undergraduate and lower-level graduate texts which introduce “history and philosophy of science,” “Science, Technology, and Society,” and “Science and Technology Studies.” Such texts rarely cover the same material in a way that sociology introductory texts contain a good deal of similar information.

I use Sismondo’s and Volti’s introductory texts and their books contain concerns not reflected in Wikipedia site such as “ghost publishing” or the “political economy of knowledge.”

Winston Churchill was right, according to "American" automaker Jeep??

When discussing the notion of “mutual shaping” in the classroom, I discuss a paper by my mentor, Tom Gieryn about buildings (“what buildings do” in Soc Theory). I open lecture/discussion with the famous quote from Winston Churchill “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” (from a speech in 1944 when the House of Commons was completed), which has recently been transformed and used in a rather “tough” commercial from Jeep brand (sprinkled with some blatant patriotism) here that claims:

“The things we make, make us”

Seems like “mutual shaping” makes for good advertising …

Teaching and "The Doing of STS"

In 1992, Phil Heath wrote “Organizing for STS teaching and learning: The doing of STS” in the education and policy journal Theory into Practice, and while an abstract for this article is not available, it is about teaching students STS, specifically those students whom are not STSers (like us).

Really not like us…

The article is about children and infusing STS concepts, perspectives, etc. into the American K-12 educational landscape. The justification being that

“many educators are concerned that the existing curriculum in most schools is too narrowly focused, too historically bound, and too compartmentalized to deal adequately with these new challenges” (52).

Those “new challenges” mainly being the improvement of citizenship in a technological age. The authors make a number of thought-provoking points (and they state a lot of junk that I don’t care for from education types), but above all, I thought this might have some valuable cache for us:

“The formationof multidisciplinary and multigrade teams within the school system is fundamental to our successful infusion of STS and for sustained success” (57).

Group work, which when done properly, draws from the group’s knowledge, might be a way to get non-STS students to appreciate the concepts.Likewise, the author correctly writes that “current issues” is also a pool from which great examples can be drawn for use in the STS or social theory classroom wherein not everyone is a major or even interested in the theoretical issues.

Still, getting back to the article, it makes me wonder: why is STS such a joke in American K-12 schools? Pointing the figure at an honest American debacle, “No Child Left Behind,” seems like a good, fun start, but there is something about STS being, dare I say, excluded during childhood education and “ghettoized” among colleges and universities. Certainly, Penn State’s STS program termination comes at a time where I wonder for the future of STS (although, Harvard actioning a program at the exact same time was encouraging).