What does “society” mean to you? What comes to mind when you hear the word “technology?” Undergraduate students from the University of Maryland College of Information Studies (UMD iSchool) examine these questions as part of the Technology, Culture, and Society course taught by Assistant Professor Daniel Greene. The course inspires future technology professionals to deeply consider their responsibilities to users and society by looking at what counts as design work, who counts as designers, and what impacts our designs have.
Students in the course travel back to their elementary school days as they are handed paper, markers, and pencils to kickstart this thought exploration by drawing the first thing that pops into their heads when they think of the words “society” and “technology.” The students then share their pictures with a small group, pick the group’s favorite, and present this to the class.
The illustrations exercise is based on the idea of a Rorschach Test – a psychological test where a person’s interpretations of abstract shapes help to reveal the person’s personality and thought processes. “I start most of my seminars with an exercise like this,” said Greene. “For technical students, it’s a signal that this is a discussion-based class about difficult social issues. For everyone, it’s a signal that this is not going to be a standard lecture and will require some creativity and risks.”
Many of the technology pictures focus on consumer electronics at the interface level such as flat screens on phones and laptops. This is something Greene said they as a class try to get past as they examine the social implications beyond interface design and move into enterprise-level or state-level decisions to stretch the definition of technology and technologists beyond the design of the latest mobile app.
The society pictures focus not just on human communities but on the infrastructure supporting them, such as roads, buildings, trains, and cables. This is a theme demonstrated throughout Greene’s class curriculum; the idea that our social values and social structures manifest in the things we build.
“It’s really important in my classes that students feel comfortable talking about their own lives, their career goals, etc. so we start by talking about what ideas they’re bringing into the room,” said Greene. “This helps us learn about each other. It also allows me to preview the rest of the content that we’ll have in class by using their drawings as examples.”
To read more about the latest work produced by the iSchool, check out https://ischool.umd.edu/news.