I feel strongly that since the U.S. is so committed to science and technology, general education should talk more about such things. I wrote a book on the difference between science and technology some years ago (Flying Buttresses, Entropy, and O-Rings, published by Harvard Press), and I think it is a good book, but the sales have been relatively modest. Many people would rather lump the two together as a field filled with people wearing pocket protectors and white coats, and in the case of success would just as soon give credits to “young scientists”, rather than learning about the processes involved.
I was reminded of the STS issue by a relatively small article in the October 7 New York Times Magazine entitled Why Your Car Isn’t Electric, in which there are a few quotes from STS people. The article is here. STS people sometimes argue about whether science and technology are more socially determined (what people want), or technology determined (what is possible). The answer is some of both. Products must be technologically feasible, but also wanted by the society. But directions of technology and science that are backed by lots of resources and demand win out, and become dominant as people get used to them and the infrastructure develops, Did you know your refrigerator might be powered by gas, were it not for all the money that General Electric had long ago? Those of you who are older might remember Servel.
Automobiles are the topic of this article. As is pointed out, the largest carmaker in the United States at the turn of the 20th century was the Electrical Vehicle Company, which owned 30% of the electric cars in the county (it leased its cars) but was driven into bankruptcy by, as the article says, “a series of shady business dealings”. This gave an opportunity to people building petroleum fueled vehicles, who then improved their products over the years, until they became the definition of “cars”. Now it is very difficult to convince people to try other types of transportation. As an example of extraordinary efforts, the article informed me (I am not a Prius owner) that the Prius creeps forward when one takes one’s foot off of the brake, a feature not necessary, but included so it feels like a “real” car.
To me the nature of science and engineering and the forces that shape them is fascinating. I encourage you to dive into such issues a bit more. It may clarify questions such as whey are we making cities unusable at certain times of the day by clogging them with large petroleum-burning vehicles that are designed to go 70 miles per hour, but often can hardly move. Also why we developed nuclear weapons to worry about, and why we are automating so many people out of jobs.