Scholarship in the field of science and technology studies argues that technology is best understood as sociotechnical systems, that is, combinations of social practices, social relationships and institutions, and artifacts (technical devices). The sociotechnical system perspective has two important implications that will be addressed in this presentation. First, it allows for a much clearer understanding of the connections between ethics and technology. Ethical issues have to do with the social practices, social relationships, and values that constitute sociotechnical systems as well as with the design of the technical devices. Second, it provides a framework for understanding how systems of trust work; that is, it allows us to understand systems of trust and accountability as combinations of reliable devices and reliable social practices. In the case of information systems, trust is achieved not just by having reliable hardware and software but additionally through the social practices involved in producing and using the hardware and software. Systems of trust can be undermined by a failure to appreciate the importance of the intertwining of the social practices and the hardware and software. Finally, no discussion of trust and trustworthy systems is complete without some attention to the value and role of mistrust.
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Deborah G. Johnson is the Anne Shirley Carter Olsson Professor of Applied Ethics and Chair of the Department of Science, Technology, and Society in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences of the University of Virginia. Johnson's work explores the relationship between technology and ethics, especially information technology. She received the John Barwise prize from the American Philosophical Association in 2004; the Sterling Olmsted Award from the Liberal Education Division of the American Society for Engineering Education in 2001; and the ACM SIGCAS Making a Difference Award in 2000. She is the author/editor of more than a half-dozen books, including the popular textbook "Computer Ethics" (3rd edition, 2001). With J. Wetmore, she recently completed an edited volume entitled "Technology & Society: Engineering our Sociotechnical Future," to be published by The MIT Press in 2008.