A Social Technical Journey to SSIT

By on April 19th, 2024 in Articles, Editorial & Opinion, Ethics, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles, Social Implications of Technology, Societal Impact

Wow. Here I am, writing my first editorial as Editor-in-Chief (EIC). If you know me, you know I always have something to say. And yet, faced with my first editorial, I am overcome with gratitude and humility. I have been a long-time reader of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine (IEEE TSM) because it is a rare place where social and technological concerns come together in a way that respects both the technological details as well as the critical, social areas that influence technological invention and adoption.

Getting to SSIT

I was invited to join the IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society 2021 (ISTAS21) organizing committee as the Technical Program Co-Chair, and since taking on that role, I have come to rely on the sense of community and inclusion that I have found through the Society for the Social Implications of Technology (SSIT). Finding my academic community has been a struggle as an interdisciplinary scholar with a complicated path toward a specialty. My undergraduate degree in environmental sciences and policy led me to work as a health inspector, prepare taxes for my dad’s accounting firm, and work as a natural gas forecaster for an energy firm. Working as a very front-line public health worker and for a regulated industry gave me the time to experience the results of policy and wonder how the rules we lived under came about. Looking for a discipline to hang my hat on, I started taking math courses, with an eye toward getting an engineering degree, or possibly becoming an economist. Instead, the math itself caught me, and I started a master’s degree in statistics. I attended a conference on environmental statistics and saw a presentation by Mitchell Small. I had been considering a PhD, and when I saw Mitch I knew I had found my supervisor. I followed him to the Engineering and Public Policy program at Carnegie Mellon University. There, I found a community for the first time—an eclectic mix of students with the common goal of effectively and thoughtfully harnessing technology through effective policy to address society’s vexing problems. I cherished this opportunity to learn together and to apply what I learned at Battelle Memorial Institute as a research associate. All of my work experiences brought me insights into how governance decisions are informed (or not) by science. These are lessons that I still apply both in the classroom and my research in my current position in the Centre for Engineering and Society at Concordia University.

IEEE Technology and Society Magazine is a rare place where social and technological concerns come together in a way that respects both the technological details as well as the critical, social areas that influence technological invention and adoption.

Finding my identity between my Science Technology Studies colleagues and engineering faculty has been a challenge. Through teaching “Impacts of Technology on Society,” I have engaged with a broader literature that informs my training in Technology Policy. Joining the author team for Pearson Canada’s Financial Decision Making for Engineers gave me the opportunity and challenge of redeveloping my engineering economics course with tangible examples that incorporate social, sustainable, and ethical perspectives. These challenges made me look for more informed perspectives on technology and society, which brought me closer to SSIT.

My SSIT Community

I am humbled to take on the editorship of this magazine. I want to thank Jeremy Pitt for his guidance and training in the year before I became EIC. Katina Michael is the now co-EIC of IEEE Transactions on Technology and Society (IEEE TTS) and former EIC of TSM. Her guidance and mentorship have been profoundly valuable. John Impagliazzo, SSIT’s VP Publications, has helped me integrate into IEEE from the interview process to the realities of being EIC. Heather Love, EIC of the SSIT newsletter and co-chair of IEEE ISTAS 2021, welcomed me to SSIT and encouraged me to apply for the EIC role. I can never thank her enough. Another former EIC and often organizer of IEEE Ethics, Joe Herkert, has been a continual cheerleader and encourager. His guidance in my first foray into peer review as the ISTAS 21 Technical Program Co-Chair made that venture possible and gave me the incentive (and courage!) I needed to keep going. I was given the opportunity to co-chair technical programs for ISTAS 2021 through the generous invitation of Brandiff Caron, my co-chair and former colleague. I thank him from the bottom of my heart. IEEE and SSIT staff have been invaluable in this transition. From the IEEE Panel of Editors organizers and staff who welcomed and trained me, to Terri Bookman, SSIT’s own editor extraordinaire, none of this is possible without your exceptional editorial prowess and ability.

Vision for TSM

Now that the EIC duties have landed in my lap, my duty is to honor the great work that previous EICs have made to make TSM the impressive publication that it is today. What makes TSM (and SSIT) so special is that this is a space where both technical engineering topics and STS topics are dealt with. Going forward, both SSIT and TSM must find ways to strengthen this social–technical collaboration, which is at the heart of SSIT. This must involve expanding the breadth of contributors and authors for TSM and also finding ways to draw in new SSIT members, so the society can continue its essential mission. Finally, and perhaps controversially for some of our traditional IEEE readers—while trivially obvious for readers from STS—no one can truly be apolitical. No policy and no implementation of technology can be said to be free from bias or to behave in some neutral way. If there ever was a time when scholars and researchers could focus on things with no political implications and no ideological backdrop, that time is far past. It probably never existed. Threats to democracy, free expression, and the existence of academic spaces are embedded in the new technologies we face. More importantly, these freedoms are being actively targeted and weakened by these technologies and by those who claim that science should (and can be) value-free. Making more space for acknowledging who we are and where we come from is as important as the science that we create. We must be able to tell our stories and be ourselves, or the technologies that we develop will continue to serve the very few while harming those with the least power in society. Understanding the ways that society influences and is influenced by technology is the core mission of SSIT and therefore SSIT has a duty to advocate for policies that promote democracy and free expression within academia and government. But for IEEE to be true to its mission of advancing humanity through technology, the larger organization must also acknowledge the tremendous potential for abuse and harm through intensified income inequality, oligarchy, and unequal power structures in academia and industry.

No policy and no implementation of technology can be said to be free from bias or to behave in some neutral way.

Seeing how technology and society shape each other in ways that are often nebulous or intangible is challenging, especially for those of us trained in the hard sciences and engineering disciplines. Even harder to spot is how technological impacts are described as natural consequences of technological innovation as a strategy for masking intentional action. My own journey to recognizing the fact that technology cannot act alone came from years of teaching and research. I formally engage with STS concepts through my teaching, but the meaning of these texts became real to me when considering my own research efforts using agent-based models to better inform policy. No matter how solid my models or recommendations are, implementation requires human values and choices. My scientific results alone mean very little in terms of real-world decision-making.

My hope is that it can take our readers fewer years to see this essential truth than it has taken me. Solving issues like climate change and the connected challenges described in the sustainable development goals (SDGs) (including gender equality, good governance, eradicating poverty, and racial inequality) requires the realization that technology cannot act alone and that successful social transformation requires human choices and human values. This special issue explores the ways that AI could help to achieve the SDGs. Key to harnessing the benefits of AI is the realization that technology cannot act alone. This realization must become much more widespread, and engineers and technologists need to act on that knowledge. Organizations like IEEE can and should be the conduit for this critical realization to reach the people who are the most able to enact the essential changes our world needs. I believe that IEEE’s mission of “Advancing Technology for Humanity” fundamentally requires embracing this social technical truth. I am proud to have a front-row seat to witness IEEE lead a human transformation and see SSIT’s role in it.

For some references and contextualization for the claims made above, refer to Appendix A .


Author Information

Ketra Schmitt is an associate professor at the Centre for Engineering and Society and associate member, Concordia Institute for Information Systems Engineering, Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science, Concordia University, Montreal, QC H3G 1M8, Canada. She is currently the Editor-in-Chief of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine and serves as a board member for the IEEE Society for the Social Implications of Technology. Email: ketra.schmitt@concordia.ca.



Appendix A

  1. Schmitt, “A Social Technical Journey to SSIT” (Editorial), IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, March 2024.




Here I provide some background and references for some of my most important claims:


Social shaping of technology and Technological determinism

Social shaping of technology and Technological determinism are the two most common (and simplistic) frames for considering the technology-society relationship. Giotta (2018) provides a great primer on understanding these terms in the introduction to an engaging classroom activity for thinking about the impacts of technology on society. The fact that many journal articles are still published to teach these ideas emphasizes the difficulties most students have in understanding them. Moreover, Wyatt (2008) argues that while Technological Determinism is a completely discredited theory, STS scholars must still engage with this idea because so many engineers and technologists continue to believe in it. The implication for SSIT and TSM is that these concepts continue to be vital and timely in our discussions of social implications.


  1. Giotta, “Teaching technological determinism and social construction of technology using everyday objects,” Communication Teacher, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 136-140, 2018. DOI: 10.1080/17404622.2017.1372589


  1. Wyatt, Technological Determinism is Dead; Long Live Technological Determinism. M.I.T. Press. 2008.


Achieving the SDGs is primarily a social challenge

By their articulation, the SDGs acknowledge that achieving environmental sustainability is predicated on bettering the human condition, and that the human condition can only be truly improved with environmental sustainability. The SDGs are more than a nice set of goals; each goal fundamentally requires the others in order to be fully achieved. Pörtner et al. (2023) lays out the connections between warming, biodiversity loss and socially sustainability. Thorwaldsson (2019) lays out the direct ways in which income inequality must be addressed in order to achieve environmental sustainability. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) outlines how addressing gender equality will improve the climate crisis.


H.-O. Pörtner et al., “Overcoming the coupled climate and biodiversity crises and their societal impacts,” Science, vol. 380, eabl4881, 2023. DOI:10.1126/science.abl4881


  1. Thorwaldsson, “Why income inequality is bad for the climate,” World Economic Forum, Jan 29, 2019. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/income-inequality-is-bad-climate-change-action/


UNEP, “Gender equality – a critical missing piece of the climate puzzle,” UN Environment Program, March 7, 2020. https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/gender-equality-critical-missing-piece-climate-puzzle


Extreme wealth inequality, power disparity and governance

Stories of the outsized influence of billionaires on governance abound. Look at Tim Dunns, who wields his fund to establish a theocracy in Texas[1], or Galen Weston, a Canadian oligarch whose firm and family have been separately implicated in multiple offshoring schemes to avoid taxes. Yet, when called before parliament to answer accusations of food price gouging in his stores, Weston was able to demur,[2] and has so far avoided paying 400 million dollars in taxes from offshored wealth.[3] Worse yet, his legal defence potentially puts 1 billion dollars in unpaid offshore taxes at risk of not being collected.[4] It perhaps goes without saying that Canada badly needs these funds to meet the promise of a social democracy, including decent healthcare, water quality and other infrastructure. Tax avoidance with impunity is as powerful a tool for undermining equality and democracy as direct intervention.


But for me the example of Bill Ackman is instructive. He is an avowed liberal but worries that diversity initiatives go too far.[5] “I don’t want to advantage my own group at the expense of another. What I want is fairness.”[6] Of course, this simplistic understanding of “fairness” lacks any realization that his own success stemmed from his race, gender, and his own childhood wealth and connections. His money makes up for any gap in understanding the social roots of his own success. Ackman led the charge to depose two women university presidents, including the first Black woman president of Harvard.[7] Wealthy people who weaponize their money and power continue to attack women and minoritized academics with charges that these faculty members did not earn their place.[8] If it weren’t for this outsized power, his would be a funny misunderstanding of how much harder women, minoritized people and especially Black women have to work to succeed. This is another example of the limits of our science to change policy, behavior or minds. Scores of peer-reviewed studies demonstrate the deep inequalities within science and academia – where women receive lower teaching evaluations[9] (even when the actual gender of instructors was swapped[10]), and women’s achievements are rated lower based on their curriculum vitae (CVs) (again for randomized gender), and the higher number of publications needed by women and minoritized candidates to be reviewed as strongly as their male counterparts.[11]  Women receive shorter and less glowing reference letters.[12] These inequalities continue through the tenure process, exacerbated by women’s higher work requirements at home,[13] higher levels of academic service (where women do more service and are recognized less[14]), and emotional labor.[15] These disparities show up in the peer review process (women and people of color spend longer under peer review[16], receive more edits, and then fewer citations[17]), all perhaps exacerbated by the low representation of women and people of color on editorial boards[18]. Critically, there is no evidence that women are worse instructors, and when rated on quality rather than quantity, women some studies indicate that women outperform men[19]. All of this is a very long way to say that university Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) practices are based in science and seek to create fairness for the first time, rather than undermine it. The example of billionaires seeking to undermine governance goes far past academia, but illustrates the ways that evidence-based practices are undermined and wealth is weaponized to undermine equality and democracy.


Selected journal articles


  1. Agarwal, “What is emotional labour and why is it mostly done by women?,” World Economic Forum, Dec 15, 2022. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/12/emotional-labour-women-workplace-home-gender/


A.Boring, K. Ottoboni, K. and P.B. Stark, “Student evaluations of teaching (mostly) do not measure teaching effectiveness,” ScienceOpen Research, vol. 0(0), pp. 1-11, 2016. DOI: 10.14293/S2199-1006.1.SOR-EDU.AETBZC.v1


  1. Hengel, “Evidence from peer review that women are held to higher standards,” VoxEU Column, Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), Dec 22, 2017. https://cepr.org/voxeu/columns/evidence-peer-review-women-are-held-higher-standards


  1. Liu, T. Rahwan, and B. AlShebli, “Non-White scientists appear on fewer editorial boards, spend more time under review, and receive fewer citations,” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, vol. 120, no. 13, Mar. 28, 2023.


A.Oza, “Citations show gender bias — and the reasons are surprising,” Nature news, Dec. 22, 2023. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-03474-9


  1. Reardon, “Fewer citations for female authors of medical research,” Nature news. July 29, 2021. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02102-8


  1. Skibba, “Women postdocs less likely than men to get a glowing reference,” Nature,2016.



[1] https://www.texasmonthly.com/news-politics/billionaire-tim-dunn-runs-texas/

[2] https://www.blogto.com/eat_drink/2023/02/galen-weston-testify-parliamentary-committee-investigating-food-prices/

[3] https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/loblaws-cra-glenhuron-bank-barbados-tax-1.4490564


[5] https://www.businessinsider.com/bill-ackman-says-dei-is-racist-2024-1

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2024/02/10/bill-ackman-end-dei-industry/

[7] https://www.businessinsider.com/bill-ackman-says-dei-is-racist-2024-1

[8] The story of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure case at UNC exemplifies the ways that Black women are targeted by wealthy and powerful white men. https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article253140883.html

[9] https://www.scienceopen.com/hosted-document?doi=10.14293/S2199-1006.1.SOR-EDU.AETBZC.v1

[10] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/14/study-says-students-rate-men-more-highly-women-even-when-theyre-teaching-identical

[11] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/06/07/new-study-finds-discrimination-against-women-and-racial-minorities-hiring-sciences

[12] https://www.nature.com/articles/nature.2016.20715

[13] Numerous articles and UN reports summarize this pattern, which exists around the world. This US example shows that women continue to have much higher household responsibilities despite increases in earning outside the home. https://www.npr.org/2023/04/13/1168961388/pew-earnings-gender-wage-gap-housework-chores-child-care

[14] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/04/12/study-finds-female-professors-outperform-men-service-their-possible-professional

[15] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/12/emotional-labour-women-workplace-home-gender/

[16] https://cepr.org/voxeu/columns/evidence-peer-review-women-are-held-higher-standards

[17] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-03474-9

[18] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36940343/

[19] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/female-economists-write-better-spend-longer-peer-review