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  • Histories of Human Engineering: Tact and Technology by Maarten Derksen
  • Bregje F. van Eekelen (bio)
Histories of Human Engineering: Tact and Technology By Maarten Derksen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. 276.

How has the idea of human engineering, the dream of control of human behavior and society, emerged, traveled, and transformed? In Histories of Human Engineering, Maarten Derksen addresses this puzzle. His combination of histories of science with histories of concepts resonates with How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind (Erickson et al., 2013) and Objectivity (Daston & Galison, 2007).

At first glance, the book resembles a lexicon of twentieth-century human engineering concepts: social technology, mind control, scientific management, the human factor, etc. It is, however, primarily an intellectual history of several key authors who all contributed to and reframed the main concept. Their ideas are recounted through a subtle reading of the lives of authors, texts, and textbooks. The role of technology is indirect: imaginaries of technology feed social science and co-shape how social scientists see and propose to act on society. And we do catch glimpses of "society"—the object to be engineered—however not as a force that co-shaped social science, academia, key concepts, and imaginaries about technology. For historians of social science, the book is innovative in that the interface between social science and technology is investigated rather than presumed or critiqued a priori, and because it addresses the friction between the disciplines of sociology, psychology, and political science without presenting siloed disciplinary histories. [End Page 270]

While some see human engineering as "a strategy for calculating and manipulating power relationships that promises efficient and effective control over human behavior," Derksen's main thrust is that, since we are dealing with humans not machines, effective human engineering always needs to include "tact"; it needs to consider how resistance can be foiled, as part of the theory (p. 9). For instance, whereas humans and engineering were entwined in scientific management, the introduction of psychologists—the original human engineers—marks a shift from strategy, involving calculation and manipulation, to tact in management, as workers were trained to think the right thing autonomously (ch. 3). Derksen then delineates the subtle divergence between human engineering and social technology, and he showcases convincingly how social technology dissolved when technology ceased to refer to practices in practical arts, such as playing a piano (ch. 4). The next chapter revolves around psychology's ploy to engineer behavior, situating the idea that humans and their conduct are engineerable in the interwar Zeitgeist (ch. 5). The author then queries two approaches to the admixture of science, technology, and democracy (chs. 6, 7). Karl Popper homes in on the instrumental role for institutions as machines. Whereas Popper admonishes us to stay away from individuals and social relations, Kurt Lewin is interested in fostering democratic processes in groups. Derksen's situated history of the emergence and fortunes of group decision processes, as well as T groups or sensitivity training, is a fascinating read, not least because it ventures outside academia. The liveliest chapters depart not from academia but from the field. Perhaps the most vivid chapter is the one dealing with mind control (ch. 8). The related concepts of brainwashing and "menticide"—psychiatrist Jan Meerloo's term for when a tyrant "injects his own words and thoughts into the minds and mouths of the victims he plans to destroy"—deal with reverse psychology: how to marshal all we know about engineering the mind to destroy those of others (p. 143). What makes the chapter compelling is the introduction of the public imagination and the motley group involved in hashing out these terms including the CIA, journalists, actors in court cases, and scientists.

In chapters 5 and 8, Derksen doesn't give science an a priori position in the narrative but instead showcases what concepts that mesh technology and society actually "do." Derksen differentiates the "ideal itself and what came of it in practice" (p. 58). But that misses the point that, as Anthony Giddens has said, social science's findings "very often enter constitutively into the world they describe" (The Constitution of Society, Polity, 1984, p. 20). Society is also a site where...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 270-272
Launched on MUSE
2022-01-06
Open Access
No
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