SSIT President Janet Rochester Observes Earth and the Implications of Technology

SSIT President Janet Rochester

SSIT President Janet Rochester

Years ago when Janet Rochester, president of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, sailed aboard the grand Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liner from her birthplace in London, England to what would become her new home in New Jersey, she little imagined that she would remake herself professionally as well. Her evolution from a botanist who wrote abstracts and taught high school chemistry to a technical writer meant that she would spend the next 21 years working with the engineers who design the Aegis Combat System, a multi-functional phased-array radar system for US Navy cruisers and destroyers.

Today, having retired from that career in 2004, she can retrace the steps she took from the U.K. to the U.S.A., from botanical abstracts and indexes to technical writing for defense engineers, and from reading the futuristic imaginations of Ursula K. Le Guin and Arthur C. Clarke, to leading the SSIT as it considers the implications for humanity and on the planet of engineers, engineering, and the engineered.

Her career path

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in science from the Chelsea College of Technology, University of London, she taught chemistry. Then her former husband (she is now married to Haydon Rochester) was offered a 3-year contract working in New Jersey, and they said, “Why not give it a go.”

But she found her career opportunities in botany as limited here as in England, so she built a bridge to make the crossover from botany to technical writing by earning one of the first master’s degrees in Science and Technical Communication offered by Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She would later earn an MBA from Monmouth College (now Monmouth University).

When a neighbor told her about a technical writer’s job opening up at what was then RCA in Moorestown, NJ, she applied and was hired. “I joined a large technical writing group that worked with the engineering groups to literally get the specifications written to the specifications. This was work for the Aegis radar system sensor radar used to scan the skies and installed on a series of cruisers and destroyers for the US Navy. We wrote in a particular style to meet certain military standards and our job was to make sure the engineers wrote to that particular style and to make sure any changes to the specifications were incorporated, and we saw the documents through publication.”

The Aegis Combat System at work (U.S Dept. of Defense photo)- The guided missile cruiser USS Thomas S. Gates (CG 51), center, underway alongside the Chilean frigate Williams (FF 19) and Peruvian frigate Carvajal (FM 51) in the Pacific Ocean (July 11, 2005). Thomas S. Gates is part of a multinational naval and coast guard force from six nations conducting UNITAS 46-05 Pacific Phase off the coasts of Colombia. During the two-week exercise, participating units have the opportunity to train as a unified force in all aspects of naval operations, from maritime interdiction to anti-submarine and electronic warfare.

The Aegis Combat System at work (U.S Dept. of Defense photo)- The guided missile cruiser USS Thomas S. Gates (CG 51), center, underway alongside the Chilean frigate Williams (FF 19) and Peruvian frigate Carvajal (FM 51) in the Pacific Ocean (July 11, 2005). Thomas S. Gates is part of a multinational naval and coast guard force from six nations conducting UNITAS 46-05 Pacific Phase off the coasts of Colombia. During the two-week exercise, participating units have the opportunity to train as a unified force in all aspects of naval operations, from maritime interdiction to anti-submarine and electronic warfare.

She started that work in 1983 and spent the next 21 years in the same spot, while RCA was bought by General Electric, which sold its radar division to Martin Marietta, which merged with Lockheed and became Lockheed Martin. Eventually, she became a lead member of the engineering staff at Lockheed Martin Naval Electronics and Surveillance Systems.

Membership in IEEE and SSIT Reflects Many Interests

Her professional transformation had prompted her to join IEEE in 1983, and also SSIT, “one of the smaller” of the Institute’s 38 societies, “with a history of examining and calling attention to social, environmental, economic, political, and other global impacts of engineers’ work. SSIT also supports and participates in work related to the history of technology, women in engineering, engineering education, and engineering ethics,” she reports.

She became president of SSIT in 2008 and is finishing her second one-year term.

“Our members are engineers – and others (of all IEEE technical societies we are perhaps the most interdisciplinary) – interested in the social impacts of technology. That concept covers wide ground, and our members interests include but are not limited to: engineering ethics, public policy issues related to technology and engineering, sustainable design, sustainable energy, climate change and other environmental issues, emerging technologies, green technologies, health and healthcare technologies and impacts, public transport, technologies for international development, standards and regulations, telecommunications and privacy issues, and energy issues,” she said.

A survey of the conferences, magazine articles, and blog entries shows an eclectic and thoughtful span of interests. On the SSIT blog at present are ongoing discussions on Ethical Robots in War, e-mail vs. personal letters, nanotechnology, and What is Predictive Fiction?

“I am interested in what technology can do and what it can’t,” she says. “People often think of a technological solution when some other solution might be more applicable. I think technology can become a force in that people come to think of it as the most important thing. Technology isn’t neutral. It depends on the culture and the society to determine where it ends up. Different cultures have used the same technology for different purposes. For instance, the Chinese invented gunpowder and all they used it for was fireworks!”

“In the 1980s or even the 1970s, IEEE introduced members to the concept that engineers need to develop their non-technical skills,” Rochester said. “Now we’re at another turning point. We acknowledge that we have a wider social responsibility. We can’t keep doing higher and higher tech that impacts fewer and fewer people. The developments in technology need to be shared with everyone who wants them. And I think this is another change in how we see engineering.

The Blue Marble - East

The Blue Marble - East

“We are focusing on the ethical responsibilities of engineers. Our founders were very concerned about the nuclear industry. There is a core of people who are still concerned. I worked in the defense industry. Some people have problems with that or some aspects of it.

“Keith Rainey (a past president of the IEEE GRSS who served as the Geosciences and Remote Sensing Society (GRSS) representative to SSIT) says we are being more cautious.” She agrees with him. “We’re looking at a more holistic view of technology and society. GRSS may be concerned with how remote sensing information can be used; SSIT may be more concerned about how it can be misused. When satellites are used to track refugees to bring humanitarian help to them, but militaries can use the same information to continue their harassment, we need to think hard about the implications of this technology. On a more individual scale, can (remote sensing technology) be used to track people? We’ve been hearing lately about the new drivers licenses. The stripe on the license stores your personal information that can be used to speed up border crossings between, say, Canada and the US. The two countries and the Border States, primarily, are going through with this technology. But critics have pointed out that this information doesn’t stay private. The time saved is minimal. And when you walk down Main Street someone with one of these reader devices can see everything about you. So you have to buy a metal device to stick your license in.”

She continued: “SSIT isn’t saying we shouldn’t develop this technology, we’re saying, hey, hold on a minute; let’s consider all the implications. There are other factors going on here. We need to make sure these things are secure. So, we’re being more cautious. This may contribute to our reputation for being anti technology, but I think it goes back to the original idea of developing technology appropriate for its purpose. Technology is supposed to solve problems; not create new ones. For example, if your identity is stolen, it is time consuming and expensive to fix it. It all falls back on the individual. We are going to be trying to bring these issues to a wider audience.

NASA’s “Blue Marble” photos of Earth give
perspective to the scope of the UN Climate
Change Conference in Copenhagen by
showing the vibrant colors of our
continents and oceans against the
blackness of space. NASA Goddard Space
Flight Center Images by Reto Stöckli,
Robert Simmon.

“We’re looking at a bigger picture, a more holistic view of technology. For those who are interested it is intellectually stimulating and mind expanding. We recently conducted a survey of members to gauge their interests. At the top of their interests are sustainability, renewable energy, and capacity building in developing countries. Our members also reported on their concern about population growth; that there is no problem we are facing that will not be exacerbated by population growth.

“We are now in discussion with the ICEO (IEEE Committee on Earth Observation) about an SSIT member joining this committee.”

She sees opportunities and challenges ahead for IEEE. “Within IEEE, we see more growth in membership outside the US than within the US. More countries are educating their own engineers to work in their countries, but they also see the relevance of joining an international organization. The entre into engineering is changing. I’ve heard professors complain that people don’t have the tinkering skills that previous generations have had, because they haven’t taken anything apart–so little is mechanical now. So they need training in model building before they do any serious engineering. But I am sure it is equally true that when some people see what computers can do, they are wowed and think, ‘I want to do that’.”

In May of this year, SSIT held a collocated conference with The Computer Society‘s Technical Committee on Sustainable Systems and Technology. Jim Isaak, the 2010 president of the Computer Society, is also a board member of SSIT, an author of Predictive Fiction, and an SSIT blogger.

The Blue Marble - West

The Blue Marble - West

Earth’s Future as a Home Planet Depends on World Leadership

“I think I’m a pessimist,” Janet Rochester said. “I don’t see people as a whole coming to grips with the problems that face humanity.”

She doesn’t hold out much hope for dramatic changes at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark on Dec. 7 – 18, 2009.

“I’m not optimistic that much is going to change,” she said. “World leaders have to show greater awareness of climate change, greater leadership. People in industry talk about increased costs, and people talk about changes to their lifestyles. But there will be increased costs if we don’t make any changes.

“I do not think the US is moving fast enough about climate change. As a result, I think we are going to lose our technological advantage and play catch up to countries like China, India and Germany.

“The future does look bleak, but it doesn’t have to. We could still turn it around with scientific and technological leadership. I don’t believe we can make climate change go away, but we can mitigate its impact.”

If you would like to join the Society on Social Implications of Technology, contact Janet Rochester at jrochester@ieee.org Not yet a member of IEEE? Click here.

Maeve Hickok is managing editor of Earthzine.