Technologies such as the power grid, plumbing, or mass media rely on standards that are accepted as simply being there. Electric power is provided at 120V AC, pipe gauges are measured in fractional increments, typically expressed in inches, sitcoms are 30 min long and come with canned laughter, while the English language is inscribed using the Roman alphabet. And so on. These conventions and standards are assumed to be a part of the natural order of things. For some, worrying about them is like worrying about the length of the calendar year. There is nothing we can do to change the fact that the Earth circles the sun over a period of 365 ¼ days. Yet worry they should. Technologies and standars are not a part of nature. They are a product of human choice. Technologies are shaped by some early decisions that were NOT “natural” or taken in full awareness of their implications. After all, no one can predict the future. Critically examining fundamental technologies, their ruling principles, standards and conventions, and the decisions that shaped them should be second nature for any engineer or technologist. Such critical examination should be pragmatic, not dogmatic. Being man-made, conventions and standards can always be replaced by other conventions. Although this process is fraught with uncertainty, we should be able to decide which conventions or standards are better than others. One of the most productive selection methods is trade-off analysis. Such analysis recognizes that there are intrinsic costs and benefits in each choice. In deciding which choices are better we need to figure out how the maximizing benefits for one choice minimizes not only the costs but also comparatively provides more benefits than the alternatives. The process is a complex one and straight algebra might not always provide straight solutions. Ethical, economic, legal, and political choices might be also involved in each choice set.
Simple or not, learning how to assess decisions and standards using a trade-off analysis is an essential skill for any successful practical vocation dealing with technology. Trade-off analysis, at the same time, cannot be limited to merely financial or material costs or benefits. Moral, political, and cultural costs should be always taken into account. A transdisciplinary perspective is thus essential, especially when dealing with standards and conventions involved in some of our life-supporting technologies.
Exploring these issues is not only an exercise in abstract thinking. It is a method of training practical skills. Through trade-off thinking students learn about mitigating risk, the cost of “externalities” or hidden costs, or learn how to “cost” cultural sensibilities. Students get the chance to explore how to find the balance between moral and economic costs or benefits against purely technological and economic ones. More broadly, students gain deeper understanding and acquire the critical thinking skills to become critical designers and consumers of technology.
At Purdue University Polytechnic Institute we are teaching a trade off seminar that creates the framework for achieving some of the goals mentioned above. The trade off seminar syllabus is presented on this site. On the Transform Stem site, the organization the incubated some of these ideas, and also on this site, we have also published a manifesto that highlights the needs and objectives behind a learning experience shaped by trade off thinking.