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Since there are good reasons to think that some engineered systems are socially undesirable—for example, internal combustion engines that cause climate change, algorithms that are racist, and nuclear weapons that can destroy all life—there is a well-established literature that attempts to identify best practices for designing and regulating engineered systems in order to prevent harm and promote justice. Most of this literature, especially the design theory and engineering justice literature meant to help guide engineers, focuses on environmental, physical, social, and mental harms such as ecosystem and bodily poisoning, racial and gender discrimination, and urban alienation. However, the literature that focuses on how engineered systems can produce political harms—harms to how we shape the way we live in community together—is not well established. The first part of this thesis contributes to identifying how particular types of engineered systems can harm a democratic politics. Building on democratic theory, philosophy of collective harms, and design theory, it argues that engineered systems that extend in space and time beyond a certain threshold subvert the knowledge and empowerment necessary for a democratic politics. For example, the systems of global shipping and the internet that fundamentally shape our lives are so large that people cannot attain the knowledge necessary to regulate them well nor the empowerment necessary to shape them.
The second part of this thesis is an empirical study of a workshop designed to encourage engineering undergraduates to understand how engineered systems can subvert a democratic politics, with the ultimate goal of supporting students in incorporating that understanding into their work. 32 Dartmouth undergraduate engineering students participated in the study. Half were assigned to participate in a workshop group, half to a control group. The workshop group participants took a pretest; then participated in a 3-hour, semi-structured workshop with 4 participants per session (as well as a discussion leader and note-taker) over lunch or dinner; and then took a posttest. The control group participants took the same pre- and post- tests, but had no suggested activity in the intervening 3 hours. We find that the students who participated in workshops had a statistically significant test-score improvement as compared to the control group (Brunner-Munzel test, p < .001). Using thematic analysis methods, we show the data is consistent with the hypothesis that workshops produced a score improvement because of certain structure (small size, long duration, discussion-based, over homemade food) and content (theoretically rich, challenging). Thematic analysis also reveals workshop failures and areas for improvement (too much content for the duration, not well enough organized).
The thesis concludes with a discussion of limitations and suggestions for future theoretical, empirical, and pedagogical research.
Carrese, Dominic David, "A Political Theory of Engineered Systems and A Study of Engineering and Justice Workshops" (2024). Dartmouth College Master’s Theses. 84.