Engineering Social Justice: Rethinking Technology, Community, and Career for a Sustainable World
A thought-provoking introspective piece on the ethical implications of how emergent technology affects society and the need for responsible engineering for social change at scale.
I'm currently on medical leave from my administrative position at a high school in Detroit. Over the past few weeks of rest, I've had time to reflect on where my path may be headed...
But First, A Quick Storytime
Earlier in the school year, we had a guys' day in and a girls' day out. The young ladies got to see the Woman King, whereas most of the guys spent their time playing basketball in the gym. However, a small group of young men who didn’t want to play sports were left to their own devices.
As the only male staff member who also didn't want to sweat all day, I devised a plan. My rudimentary brainstorming led me to believe a philosophical discussion would be so much fun! I rushed to my laptop and attempted to gather some of the most profound questions on the internet. When I went to check on the boys, the crisis was averted. They were literally on their own devices—a Nintendo Switch playing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (a classic), which I beat every one of them in.
Dr. DC earned his cool points for the rest of the year!
My Philosophy of Community and Technology
As a kid, I spent so much time exploring digital worlds, desperate to escape the real one with all its wicked problems. Since then, I've grown into a man desperate to solve real problems experienced by minoritized communities. Ironically, I somehow find playing video games to feel like doing chores.
Though I excelled all throughout grade school, I never truly or thoroughly enjoyed a single class until grad school. My favorite course, Philosophy of Technology, was full of various discussions exploring the many aspects by which technology has affected society. This educational experience led me to witness the works of Drs. Ruha Benjamin, Safiya Noble, and Joy Buolamwini, which has only deepened my desire to explore the ethical implications of how emergent technology affects society, especially as it pertains to justice and equity for all. I would have majored in philosophy if I hadn’t set my life goal as a child to become a mechanical engineer with the promise of a lucrative career.
Retrospectively, how sociotechnical systems influence how we navigate the world has been interesting to me since I was bored sitting in my mechanical engineering courses, wondering why there was such a focus on technical rigor with little emphasis on social implications. My freshman engineering class, Engineering Design in the Real World, was the best class I’d taken in undergrad because it grappled with these issues in some ways. However, the remaining ABET curricular requirements I had to fulfill felt like a complete bait and switch.
It didn’t help that police brutality was constantly going viral on my timeline, and I had direct experience with environmental injustice in my first engineering internship. I didn’t have the fire or the know-how to do anything about these social inequities. I was just a Black kid from the Detroit area, living his life at his “dream” school, financially incentivized to remain in an isolating engineering program.
This eventually led me to pursue a minor in sustainable engineering, which was the catalyst for reimagining ways I could leverage my engineering skillset for social change. Still, I didn’t know the fullness of this work, or the true urgency with which engineering institutions needed to adopt this way of ethical design for social good at scale.
Somehow modern engineering programs forgot about the human-centered aspect of technological innovation, and have only, in recent years, begun to home in on cultivating socially responsible engineers. Even with the relatively recent call to action of the engineering grand challenges and the sustainable development goals, there’s still pushback from heteronormative engineers of old.
Technology has been a part of human history for as long as it has been recorded. From hunter-gatherer communities to now, we’ve been using tools to advance our way of life. Technology is an extension of the way in which we navigate the world as a community. We can’t rely on techno-solutionism, blindly believing that we’re going to innovate our way out of deeply ingrained inequities simply by creating new apps. We’re going to have to deal with the root causes of these issues: the extraction of power from the community and its use, in the form of capital, to subjugate communities at large.
This way of thinking necessitates cognitive dissonance. I used to think that social entrepreneurship infused with STEM education was the way toward progress. However, I’ve come to understand that relying on capitalism to achieve freedom is part of the zero-sum game. Even when a benevolent billionaire is funding noble efforts, such as giving me a full-ride scholarship to any university, they’re exerting their own hyper agency over those they deem worthy of support. In addition, working within the gig economy under the guise of professional autonomy screams “autoexploitation.” Different philosophical approaches to challenging the status quo have made me curious to explore concepts of degrowth, socialism, and limitarism.
Even though it’s too early to call, I’ve begun to reach a sense of peace about my itching desire to stop focusing on economic and workforce development. This meritocratic work has reinforced the notion that those deemed exceptional and capable of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps are worthy of a satisfying life. Instead, I’m refocusing on economic justice with an emphasis on community-driven innovations to benefit the public good.
Now, how do I put this into practice?
The Career Conundrum of Divesting from the Meritocracy
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The ESTEAMED Edupreneur to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.