Do We Just “Build Stuff”?

By on June 29th, 2017 in Magazine Articles, President's Message, Societal Impact

Every day as engineers and technologists we go to work teaching, developing, building, implementing, maintaining technology. Do we care about its impact on the people around us? Or is that their problem?

My first career was in publishing in the 1970s, as a typographer. The company’s phototypesetting system was 1960s technology, still functioning effectively for the book, magazine, and newspaper production the company did. Then in the early 1980s desktop publishing struck. In a surprisingly brief time its quality went from internal newsletters to high-end advertising. While some typographers were still required for the high-end work, the vast majority of roles disappeared, as the need to rekey copy disappeared. I was fortunate, being young enough to retrain first as a phototypesetting equipment technician, and then as a data communications engineer, a change I have never regretted.

Do we care about technology’s impact on the people around us?

This sort of rapid technology disruption occurs repeatedly. In coming years the pace of disruption can be expected to increase, and this raises the question: Do technologists have a responsibility to the communities that our technologies disrupt?

As an individual, we are all part of a bigger picture. We can comfort ourselves that technology disruption has always occurred, and that society has always managed to survive. This approach works best if we ignore the historical and sociological evidence of the damage experienced individually and by communities as the disruption occurs. Or we can take refuge in Joseph Schumpeter’s 1930s term “creative destruction,” interpreting the disruption as some sort of natural force. (Schumpeter himself was never blasé about its impact, and expressed deep concern about society’s ability to survive the destruction.)

Some years later I discovered to my surprise that one technologist had warned of the impending disappearance of typographers. Norbert Wiener, founder of cybernetics, had approached a leader of the U.S. typographers’ union with the warning that the profession would be automated in a generation. He received the response that this threat to jobs was too far in the future to worry about. This example is indicative of the difficulty of explaining future changes. Nevertheless, technologists have a unique perspective on what a new technology can achieve. If we don’t let the community know, who will?

This subject will be discussed at a keynote panel, “Technologists and the Future of Work: Do we have a responsibility to the community?”, at the IEEE Conference on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century, Melbourne, Australia, July 13–15, 2016.


Greg Adamson, 2015–2016 IEEE-SSIT President, is with the Melbourne School of Engineering, University of Melbourne, Australia. Email: