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Reviewed by:
  • Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology*
  • Carroll Pursell (bio)
Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology. By Robert Pool. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. xii+358; notes, index. $30.

This is a volume in the Sloan Technology Series and, like most of the others, is written not by a scholar but by a “writer,” in this case a former senior writer at Science and former news editor at Nature. The result is a well-written account of how technologies get designed. His thesis is straightforward and simple: while many of the design decisions for technologies are in fact engineered, others are shaped by social forces extrinsic to engineering “as such.” Furthermore, there is often enough a poor fit between the machine (or technological system) and the social context within which it must operate. Because big technological systems today are so complex and powerful, more conscious thought must now be given to the social shaping they [End Page 395] receive. None of this will be news to readers of this journal, and indeed Thomas P. Hughes shows up in both the footnotes (there is no bibliography) and on the back of the dust jacket. Pool’s argument is a kind of commonsense social constructivism, with the sociology removed.

Pool’s basic strategy is to tell the story of the rise and fall (and, he apparently hopes, eventual resurrection) of the nuclear power industry in the United States. To show that this technology is not unique, however, he embeds within that larger story smaller-scale tales of the steam engine, the Bhopal disaster, computers, steam automobiles, and similar technologies, the success or failure of which had to do with society as well as engineering. In all of this he pretty well ignores the humanities except for history, which he treats as a social science. Some scholars in our field are referred to (he likes Edward Constant’s Origins of the Turbojet Revolution [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980], which he compares to Thomas Kuhn’s work in the history of science), but (unless I missed one) he has no references to any articles from Technology and Culture. The result is an interesting and largely familiar story, but one that strangely fails to resonate with most of the literature with which we are familiar.

His story is of a kind of nuclear momentum, coming out of the work and enthusiasm of scientists during World War II and spreading through American society with the aid of journalists and politicians, visionaries, and the scientists themselves. Embedded in agencies such as the Atomic Energy Commission and corporations such as General Electric and Westinghouse, the nuclear option was picked up in the 1950s and 1960s by the electrical utilities, who were pressing for ever larger energy consumption by consumers and saw nuclear reactors as just another way to boil water. In all of this, the artisanal practice of engineering gets shoved aside as does what Pool calls the “experimental” nature of engineering; that is, the tendency to move forward carefully and learn by doing along the way.

Pool has a fascinating and important story to tell, and he does so with a large measure of goodwill, common sense, and good humor. The text is riddled, however, especially in its closing chapters, with telltale rhetoric that gives away his political stance. The “society” that “mishandled” nuclear power is made up, in part, by market-driven business people (who have learned from experience) and by more irrational and ideologically committed forces. The Clamshell Alliance is portrayed as a sect made up not of those who learn from experience (like engineers) but of true believers (the Science Wars hover in the background here). There is information on disposing of nuclear wastes, but none on the costs of decommissioning. Pool comes very close to writing that regulations killed the industry (p. 229) and, in an aside, refers to the “bankrupting of the Dow Corning Corporation by large numbers of women claiming [my emphasis] to have been injured by breast implants” (p. 235).

Finally, he refers favorably to a nuclear-industry scheme, organized after Three Mile Island, to “modify the entire sociopolitical context in [End Page 396...

Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 395-397
Launched on MUSE
1999-04-01
Open Access
No
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