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  • A Revolting DevelopmentMatthew Wisnioski, Engineers for Change
  • Martin Reuss (bio)

With clear, forceful language, impressive research, and thoughtful, provocative interpretation, Matthew Wisnioski’s Engineers for Change: Competing Visions of Technology in 1960s America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Pp. 296. $35) examines the America of the 1960s and ’70s and finds the engineering profession in crisis. Reform-minded engineers questioned a world of autonomous technology without control and riddled with unintended consequences that challenged assumptions about the benefits of technology. Their calls for professional self-evaluation and change echoed Vietnam War–era opposition to the development and use of devices and chemicals that brutalized society, decimated populations, and destroyed nature. But calls for ethical, educational, and institutional reforms in engineering not only responded to war, but also to intellectual ferment. Critics like Jacques Ellul, Herbert Marcuse, and Lewis Mumford suggested that modern technology negated tradition, constrained rather than accelerated production, and alienated society. Environmental degradation also modified notions of social responsibility.

Wisnioski shows that reformers often hoisted the flag of social responsibility at the risk of their own careers. As he points out, engineering is a conservative practice. Indeed, the term radical engineers is almost an oxymoron. In their practice, most engineers attempt to reconcile competing notions of modernity, but dissidents rebelled, opting for a separation between technology and engineering. This is not as strange as it may seem at first blush, the author suggests, since “there is no such thing as an ideology of engineering in general, and the rhetorical marriage between engineering and technology is not as natural as it first appears” (p. 9; emphasis in original). Indeed, many reformers saw technology as first and foremost [End Page 726] a system of power. If so, Wisnioski observes, the professional engineering elite believed that engineers were ceding influence to scientists (both physical and social) and politicians.

Whatever it was, technology no longer seemed an unmitigated blessing. Rather it embodied the anxieties of modernity, its consequences often unpredictable as it stressed the very institutions and societies it was intended to aid. Vast technological systems, usually the result of political, scientific, and engineering alliances, provided many benefits—power, communication, and transportation, to name a few—but also raised myriad management concerns. Wisnioski analyzes the thought of commentators, such as the distinguished engineer Simon Ramo (the middle initial in the firm TRW), who tried to bridge the gap between rapid technological advances and a complex society that was increasingly technophobic and suspicious of engineers. The author also credits a new organization, the Society for the History of Technology, with playing a critical part in this discussion. The argument, he suggests, often centered on the issue of the engineer’s social relevance: some engineers pined for a more disengaged, “pure” scientific milieu; others saw no escape from issues dealing with social application. Engineers for Change suggests that, at least in two areas, many engineer reformers and traditionalists found agreement: that engineers were agents of society, and the management of changing technology necessitated new solutions, training, and skills.

Engineering societies sought a “new professionalism,” and Wisnioski addresses this issue in his chapter on “The Crisis of Technology as a Crisis of Responsibility.” Responsibility, of course, is exceedingly difficult to define, as engineers discovered. Victor Paschkis, a Columbia University engineering professor and Quaker advocate for peace, stressed the importance of personal responsibility, raising questions about the client/engineer relationship and the social ends of technology. If the client lacks moral standards or the technology destroys society, what is the engineer to do? The debate led to a renewed interest in ethics—and the increasing involvement of nonengineers in the discussion. Some engineering societies drafted goals that emphasized social responsibility. Yet where does social responsibility end and professional responsibility begin, or are the two the same? For some engineers, this became a difficult conundrum. Professional responsibility traditionally was all about best practice, safety, durability, and efficiency (both in design and in funding); it was about responsiveness to the client. Social responsibility deals with consequences, intended or otherwise, and implies a moral obligation that transcends narrow professional interests. Engineers confronted an existential crisis as they sought to understand their role in the face of accelerating technological...


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pp. 726-729
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