SSIT/CSIT Co-Founder Stephen H. Unger Dies

By on July 15th, 2023 in Articles, Blog Posts, Ethics, Magazine Articles, Social Implications of Technology, Societal Impact

Stephen H. Unger, one of the founders of the IEEE Society (and earlier Committee) on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT and CSIT), Life Fellow of the IEEE, Professor Emeritus of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Columbia University, champion of engineering ethics, and a prominent figure within SSIT, has died at the age of 92.

His death on July 4, 2023, was reported to SSIT by his son, Donald Unger. Donald Unger noted that while his father “started his career at Bell Labs—where he was part of the team that brought ‘direct-dial long distance’ calling to life—and spent the bulk of it at [Columbia University]… on some level, his connection to the IEEE was the most durable and important affiliation he had.

“One of the things that he was most proud of … was his role in creating the Society [on] Social Implications of Technology.”

Stephen Unger’s impact on SSIT is hard to overstate. He contributed to and helped drive the formation of CSIT at the time when an IEEE-based group related to social implications of technology was only an idea [1].

In the early years of the organization, Unger served as “Vice-Chairman” of CSIT in 1980, and after the group became a full IEEE Technical Society in 1982, he served as the second SSIT President in 1985-1986. He also helped establish, and often contributed articles to, the group’s publications, the CSIT Newsletter and IEEE Technology and Society Magazine [2]-[11]. He also helped establish SSIT’s first, and its perhaps defining award, the Carl Barus Award for Service in the Public Interest, given, as he stated, “in recognition of courageous actions to protect the public health, safety, or welfare, despite risk to their professional career” [7].

Within the broader IEEE, Unger served on the IEEE Board of Directors and various iterations of IEEE ethics committees, and fought for years to establish and maintain support for ethical behavior by IEEE members including an IEEE Ethics Hotline.

A principled man of great integrity, passion and honesty, who did not duck controversy or hesitate to speak truth to power both within and outside the IEEE [8], [11], Unger inspired respect from students, peers, and fellow SSIT members.

In a 1987 Technology and Society Magazine article titled, “Would Helping Ethical Professionals Get Professional Societies into Trouble?” [9], Unger concluded, “Ethics support should be carried out prudently, but vigorously, by engineering societies… when threatened with lawsuits, they should make it known that the full resources of the law will be utilized… The time is ripe for action in this area. It is up to engineers, standing together in their professional societies, to see to it that they are no longer subjected to agonizing choices between sacrificing either conscience or career.”

Unger studied as an undergraduate at Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, and received the Sc.D. degree from M.I.T. He was also a high school graduate of Brooklyn Tech.

A tribute from Joseph Herkert and Clinton J. Andrews was also published in the September 2023 issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine and can be accessed HERE.



[1] Karl D. Stephan, “Notes for a History of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 5-14, Dec. 2006

[2] Stephen H. Unger, “A proposal to limit government imposed secrecy,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 2, no. 4, pp. 3-6, Dec. 1983.

[3] Stephen H. Unger, “Role of engineering schools in promoting design safety,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 9-12, Dec. 1982.

[4] Stephen H. Unger, “The demise of defense,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 3-10, 23, Sept. 1983.

[5] Stephen H. Unger, “President’s Message – Work stations for the handicapped,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 2, 31, Sept. 1985.

[6] Stephen H. Unger, “President’s Message – Whistleblowing,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 2, 31, Jun. 1985.

[7] Stephen H. Unger, “IEEE SSIT Carl Barus Award for Outstanding Service in the Public Interest: A Distinguished History,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 3-5, Fall 2012.

[8] Stephen H. Unger, “The assault on IEEE Ethics support,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 18, no 1, pp. 36-40, Spring 1999.

[9] Stephen H. Unger, “Would helping ethical professionals get professional societies into trouble?,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 17-31, Sept. 1987.

[10] Stephen H. Unger, “President’s Message,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 2, 28, Mar. 1985.

[11] Stephen H. Under, “The case of the vanishing ethics article,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 5-6, Summer 2008.