[Column] Make technology political

In discussions about the need for climate education, something about the reactions of many colleagues strikes Bob van Vliet. Not surprising, but to him worrying.

Bob van Vliet: “Comparing everyone with the same yardstick also depoliticizes the whole thing.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

These days, in discussions about the education at my faculty, I bring up the need for climate education as often as I can. At the moment you can get your master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering without ever being forced to take a critical look at the role of technology, industry, and engineers in the creation and continuation of the climate crisis. This is no longer responsible.

I am partly to blame for this, by the way. I have had some influence on the curriculum for a while now. But until recently I never went beyond adding a couple of climate subjects to the list of options for the obligatory ‘social course’ in the programme.

But something strange struck me in the reactions of many colleagues. To be honest, it is actually not that surprising, but it is worrying.

Whenever I ask how we can get our students to think more consciously about the relationship between technology and the climate, almost without exception I get an answer in terms of the skills and knowledge we could teach them. Life Cycle Analysis. Technologies for reuse and recycling. Things ‘that are directly useful in their work’, as one colleague put it.

But I’m not really interested in making our graduates (even) better employees. If you ask me, an academic education should include having a thorough think about what kind of work you want to do in the first place, and for whom. Are you sure that corporations and start-ups that are turning a profit or attracting investment are therefore creating sensible products? How do you square that with the fact that this same consumption driven, profit-oriented system has been so destructive up to now? Do you want to be a part of that? Or does it not really matter to you as long as you get to work on technologically interesting projects? And do you then dare admit that you do not consider the wider impact of that work as your responsibility?

They leave ethics to the professionals

I recently read quite a shocking piece of research about the role of ethics courses in engineering education. Electronics engineer and sociologist Eric Cech discovered that at the end of their studies, engineering students find it less important to think about the wider societal impact of their work than at the beginning. Paradoxically, this appeared to be because their curriculum included ethics courses. It seems such courses carry the implicit message that ethics is a separate expertise and not part of engineering itself. Real engineers limit themselves to the nuts, bolts, and simulations. They leave ethics to the professionals.

It is common to view technology as ‘purely’ technical. Technical in the sense that it is only about means – about knowledge and skills as tools. And not about the ends for which you use those tools. That is ethics. Or – even worse! – politics. But engineers literally design the future. How political can you get?

Climate education must go beyond a set of tips & tricks. We have a responsibility to not only ask our students to think about materials, systems behaviour, and energy use, but also about power relationships, history, and justice.

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl.

Bob van Vliet / Columnist

Columnist Bob van Vliet

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