Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology

It is not just society shaping technology, but it is the push-pull of technology and society together influencing one another.
June 1 st 1998

Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology by Robert Pool (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 356 pages, $44.50)

"Modern technology is not simply the rational product of scientists and engineers that it is often advertised to be. Look closely at any technology today, from aircraft to the Internet, and you'll find that it truly makes sense only when seen as part of the society in which it grew up," (p. 9) says Robert Pool in this, his second book.

The book could be summed up as stating that society shapes technology according to chaos theory—many small, seemingly nonrelated events work together unpredictably to change the course of physical systems, even of history. It is not only events but the culture of institutions that have an effect on the outcome of history.

That technological progress is affected by its environment may seem nothing more than common sense. But in fact it has long been seen the other way.

Sociologists, economists, and others have long seen technology as the driving force behind much of history—a theory usually referred to as "technological determinism"—and they have happily investigated such things as how the invention of the printing press triggered the Reformation, how the development of the compass ushered in the Age of Exploration and the discovery of the New World, and how the cotton gin created the conditions that led to the Civil War." (p.10)

However, thinking on this relationship has come to the point where it is such that "scholars now talk about the push and pull between technology and society, rather than just the push of technology on society" (p. 10).

Pool laments that this understanding of the relationship between technology and its environment has not filtered out of the academic community and into popular culture. With this book he attempts to make the concept accessible to a wider audience.

Beyond Engineering was originally going to be a straightforward history of nuclear technology. However, Pool soon realized that documenting the development of a technology without also taking into account the sociological and institutional factors influencing its development was telling only half the story.

Winning technologies

Pool debunks the popular myth that in the end the better technology succeeds when two or more are competing. He demonstrates his case through a fascinating recounting of the development of the automobile engine.

"At the turn ofthe century, when horseless carriages were first becoming common in Europe and the United States, three different types were running neck and neck in popularity: electric, steam, and gasoline" (p. 152). Thirty years later, steam and gasoline were still neck-and-neck to become the industry standard. "Even now, engineers calculate optimal efficiencies for steam- and gas-powered cars and wonder if steam might have proved to be a better option," (p. 154) says Pool.

The winner in the competition between the internal combustion engine and steam power was not decided according to which was the better technology. Instead, several factors, mostly independent of the technical issues, determined the outcome. One such factor was that supporters of the gasoline-powered engine were better promoters. Another was that the dominant manufacturer of steampowered cars attempted to keep its products as mechanically simple as possible. As a consequence, it had never installed condensers to recycle the water the steam engines needed to operate.

This was not a major problem at first, since . . . there were plenty of horse troughs along the sides of roads where the cars could take on more water. But in 1914 an epidemic of hoof-and-mouth disease broke out, and most of the public horse troughs were removed to prevent its spread. (p. 155)

To overcome this sudden lack of water, a condensing system had to be rapidly designed. Car production was slowed until the new condenser could be implemented. Then in 1917, the U.S. entered WorId War I. Legislation was passed that prohibited companies from producing more yearly than half their average annual output over the previous three years. This was another blow to the steam-powered engine. Once the war was over, the 1920 recession finished off the company and the industry.

Such historical examples make "technological determinism" difficult to prove. This undermines the neoclassical economic argument that economic factors exert an influence so great as to overshadow all others. By briefly documenting the development of the internal combustion engine, the QWERTY keyboard (which was consciously designed to slow typing speeds so that the number of key jams would be reduced), and other inventions, and by providing a detailed account of the many phases of development that have brought nuclear technology to its current level, Pool provides an academically rigorous argument against technological determinism and manages to do so in an engaging narrative style.

Institutional influence

Pool's keen grasp of the influence of institutional factors on those people and organizations creating and using new technologies will promote fresh insights for those who have not been exposed to such analysis previously. The author points out that "any institution has its own goals and concerns, its own set of capabilities and weaknesses, and its own biases about the best ways to do things. Inevitably, the scientists and engineers inside an institution are influenced—often quite unconsciously—by its culture" (p. 8).

This is most evident in discussions regarding the importance of construction workers' attitudes towards their work on nuclear reactors.

Tradesmen, accustomed to building fossil-fuel plants were asked to do things differently for nuclear plants.... Bertram Wolfe, formerly a vice president and general manger in charge of GE's nuclear energy division, recalls that many of the difficulties GE encountered with their turnkey plants stemmed from "building the plants to nuclear standards." The concrete of the containment vessel, for instance, had to be certified to meet various requirements, such as standing up to certain pressures. In the end, the concrete might not be much different from that poured for a fossil-fuel plant, but the need for constant checking and certification meant the workers had to learn new habits in working with it. Welding was a similar story. The pipes in a nuclear plant faced pressures no higher than those in a coalfired plant, Wolfe notes, but the consequences of a leak were much greater, so the welds had to be made to much more rigid standards. (p. 144)

The skilled workers had a mindset about what needed to be done for fossil-fuel plants. Transferring this institution (cultural mindset, as it were) without change to the nuclear sector could be disastrous. Fortunately, those responsible for overseeing the construction of reactors recognized this and sought to change the framework within which the tradesmen operated. The GE manager is quoted as remarking, "We trained the welders in special classes. It wasn't that the new ways of doing things were particularly difficult, though. It was more of a change in attitude and approach" (p. 144).

Power plant construction workers likely never thought about the fact that they had operated withi n a particular institutional framework before, and that the new nuclear technology would require them to view their world differently. Here we see that not only does an institution influence technology to develop in a particular manner, but also a newly-developed technology creates a particular institution around it (e.g., zero tolerance for errors on reactor construction). It is not just society shaping technology, but it is the push-pull of technology and society together influencing one another.

In following the history of nuclear reactor development, the reader realizes that it's not solely front-line workers that need to be cognizant of the different institutional culture they enter when they deal with new technologies. Management finds itself under the same gun. The Presidential Board that investigated the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown noted that

running a nuclear power plant demands different sorts of management and organizational capabilities from those needed to operate a fossil-fuel plant. Utilities tend to run coal- and oil-fired plants at full power until something breaks, then fix it and start up again. There is little concern about safety, little concern about preventive maintenance, little concern about catching problems before they happen. This works fine for these plants, which are relatively simple and endanger no one when they break down. But many utilities—not just the one running [Three Mile Island]—had carried over these attitudes into the management of their nuclear plants, and that didn't work. Successfully operating a nuclear plant demanded an entirely different institutional culture. (p. 200-201)

Redressing the imbalance

If there is a fault with this book it is that it focuses so much on how society shapes technology that it neglects to discuss how technology affects society. However, the author prefaces the volume by pointing to the large body of work already in existence on technological determinism and related theories and the dearth of research on institutional influence, and explicitly states that he is out to redress the imbalance.

Those interested in understanding the new relationship between technology and people, as well as those who like to know how we ever ended up with today's technologies, will enjoy Beyond Engineering. Pool is a skilled writer, and he has crafted an enjoyable read.


Jennifer Wunsch