Beyond Engineering

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Robert Pool. Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology. New York: The Oxford University Press, 1997. xii plus 302 pp., $ 24.95, ISBN 978-0-19-512911-3


Summary

Does technology pursue an independent path without human agency in its development and application, causing society to adapt and create inherent structural changes when the implementation of technology moves beyond theory to practical use? Journalist Robert Pool, in Beyond Engineering: How Society shapes Technology, argues that it does not, instead society largely shapes technology for its own ends and to understand the history of technological innovation in the twentieth century, “one must look past the technology to the broader ‘sociotechnical system’ —the social, political, economic, and institutional environments in which the technology develops and operates.”(5) In other words, he argues that humans have primary agency in the development of technology and that social and cultural factors are the determining factor in the creation and use of technology. He primarily focuses on the history of American nuclear technology, however many of the ideas that he promotes are applicable to American technological history as a whole. To buttress his argument, Pool sprinkles his argument with anecdotal narratives of unrelated technologies.

Cultural views on technology, Pool argues, have a profound effect upon its development and implementation. In the chapter, “The Power of Ideas” the author notes that technological enthusiasm, the ideology of the Cold War, and potential peaceful use of the atom, converged to create a momentum for the application of nuclear power as an energy source during the 1940s and 50s. (64) This in turn was based on what Pool asserts is “the momentum of ideas—the way that opinions, attitudes, and beliefs take on a life of their own, both in individuals and in groups… [and that] … the momentum of ideas shapes technology as surely as does the momentum of historical circumstances…” (54) To show this, the author presents the analogy of the Internet, where optimistic predictions are fused with past experience to create an unconscious cultural belief and “attitude” of a notion of progress, which builds into an ground swell of enthusiasm in the unending potential of a new technology. (56)

However, as Pool notes, the devil is in the details. Showing the power of momentum, the author returns to the example of nuclear power as an unending energy source. The technological optimism that surrounded and powered the momentum failed to take into account the drawbacks associated with the new technology. He states that early warnings on economic, environmental, and social health costs associated with radioactivity were largely unheeded as the private sector, such as the utility business and media, joined the ground swell of technological enthusiasm. (67) This was due to the “momentum of ideas” and corresponding technological enthusiasm. It was only through the implementation of nuclear technology and horrific accidents that followed, usually due to human error, that these factors finally came to light. Subsequently, a backlash against nuclear power developed within the American culture, which in turn lead to the virtual societal abandonment of this technology as a power source. For example, since the accident at Three Mile Island, no new nuclear plants have been built in the United States. However, the author goes on to note that proponents of nuclear power have made a concerted effort to promote the advantages of nuclear power, seeing the decades since the accident as a time for re-entrenchment. (303)

Pool also argues that political considerations play a large part in how human agency effects technology. In the nineteen fifties, President Eisenhower espoused nuclear power development with his program of “Atoms for Peace”. The author states that the result of this political machination was the development and delivery of inferior technology: the light water reactor. Pool asserts that this transpired for reasons of political expediency and bureaucratic inertia. Subsequently, long-term considerations and risks took a back seat as the inferior technology was already in use, for example the first commercial light water reactor at Shippingport, Pennsylvania. For political and economic expediency, the Shippingport reactor was used as a prototype of future nuclear technological development primarily because it was seen as “the easiest, fastest, and least risky choice at the time.” (169) As Pool goes on to state, this technologically inferior light water reactor was adopted because it was “locked-in technology” and as such it was “good enough”. (176)

In Beyond Engineering economic considerations become a crucial factor in how society influences technology. As noted in the previous paragraph, a functioning light water research reactor was in place at Shippingport, Pennsylvania as of 1957. The author states that there were various alternative nuclear technologies available at the time that may have provided a lower cost and safer product. However, military research into vessel nuclear power and funding allowed for General Electric and Westinghouse to gain a lead in the building of light water nuclear reactors. (51) He further asserts that economic competition between G.E. and Westinghouse helped drive the adoption of light water reactor technology. As competition between the two corporations grew, G.E. offered utilities to build turnkey plants at a fixed price without knowing the true costs of building the plants. Instead the corporate model of production relied heavily on Fordist ideas of the more a product one builds, the less the costs. What they did not factor in was the complexity of technology in building nuclear plants. Likewise, economic considerations of the utility companies came into play when they jumped on what Pool terms, the “Great Bandwagon Market”(117). Duped into overly optimistic estimated costs of building nuclear plants, companies such as VEPCO and Duke Power began building light water reactors. Just as in the case of G.E. and Westinghouse, the utility companies found that the true costs of building and maintenance of electrical production by nuclear power eclipsed profitability. Subsequently, there was a great fall off in orders for nuclear plants in the late 1960s(116-117).

Interrelated to the considerations of societal, political, and economic factors in the history of technology is the role of institutions in the promotion of technology. Again the “momentum of ideas” plays a prominent role in how technology is shaped. Pool shows that often-revolutionary technology is eschewed for technology that fits into an evolutionary or incremental pattern that falls within the ideology of dominant institutions. Pool uses the analogy of the Haliod Company, self -capitalization of plain paper copying to exemplify this idea. IBM rejected the technology of plain paper copying technology upon recommendations of consultants. Instead Haliod, later Xerox, found the funding to develop and release the product through selling stock, thus “revolutionizing the way that offices were run.” (54) On a larger scale, the same sort of organizational bias was seen in the nuclear industry, especially in the federal agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, that oversaw the development of civilian use of nuclear energy. Again “locked in” technology, or technology that the culture of dominant institutions were comfortable with, became the prevailing model for further development.

Beyond Engineering concludes that nuclear power is a viable alternative to traditional power generation. However, in order to maintain what Pool terms “the Faustian bargain” of nuclear energy, he states that there needs to be a cultural, political and economic shift in how complex technology is used. He calls for fundamental changes in organizational culture, risk assessment, and an embracing constant improvement. In that manner, complex technology such as nuclear power generation can become reliable.

Commentary


Scott Abeel, Spring 2011

Beyond Engineering is a very well written general history of American technology with the rise of nuclear power as a case study. The ideas that Pool presents, momentum, organizational cultural bias, and technological zealotry, are well argued. Fortunately for the reader, the author approaches the details of his subject in a “science light” fashion. This allows for his targeted audience to follow his conclusions with out being bogged down in technical jargon. Subsequently, the argument against technological determinism is strongly made.

The only draw back to the work is the lack of objectivity. Throughout the book it is clear that Pool is an advocate of nuclear power. This is especially clear in the conclusion when he states it will be necessary to revamp the human factors that plague complex technology. Further, Pool asserts that in the future “technology will be a joint effort, with its design shaped not only by engineers and executives but also psychologists, political scientists, management theories, risk specialists, regulators and courts, and the general public.”(305) Such a pluralistic approach, especially in relation to the complexity of nuclear power, seems more optimistic than the technological enthusiasts of the last half of the twentieth century could ever hope to be.

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