Oxford University Press
July 17, 1997
Every now and then a book comes along with the power to reshape completely of people think about a subject, to teach them to see it in a way that is novel yet simultaneously so natural that they wonder how they ever could have missed it. Beyond Engineering by Robert Pool is such a book.
Technology is, of course, a subject of increasing importance to our world, but nearly everything written about it focuses on the changes it produces in society. History books describe how the printing press ignited the Reformation or how the invention of the cotton gin created conditions that led to the Civil War. Popular books and magazines speculate on how the Internet or genetic engineering will transform our world in years to come. But if technology shapes society, what shapes technology? It is a question we cannot ignore if we are to have any hope of understanding our present or making intelligent choices about our future.
The traditional view of technology is that it is the product of engineers and inventors, developed in a rational fashion according to arcane scientific principles that are best left to the techo-nerds. But if you look closely enough at the history of any invention, Pool says, you will find that factors unrelated to engineering have an equal and sometimes greater power. In his wide-ranging volume, he traces developments in nuclear energy, automobiles, light bulbs, commercial electricity, and personal computers, among others, to show how historical, political, cultural, organizational, economic, and psychological factors all influence the path a technology takes. For instance, Pool explores the reasons why steam-powered cars lost out to internal combustion engines. He shows that the Stanley Steamer was in many ways superior to the Model T – it set a land speed record in 1906 of more than 127 miles per hour, it had no transmission (and no transmission headaches), and it was simpler (one Stanley engine had only twenty-two moving parts) and quieter than a gas engine – but the steamers were killed off by factors that had little or nothing to do with their engineering merits, including the Stanley twins’ lack of business acumen and an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease.
Pool demonstrates how seemingly minor decisions made early in the process of technological development can have profound consequences further down the road, and, perhaps most important, he shows how the increasing complexity of modern technology makes it qualitatively different from technology of the past. That complexity creates uncertainty, making it impossible for engineers to predict exactly how well a technology will perform or to foresee all the things that can go wrong, thus making non-technical factors all the more important. Citing such catastrophes as Bhopal, Three Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez, the Challenger, and Chernobyl, he argues that we can no longer afford to think of technology exclusively in engineering terms but must take into account non-engineering influences as well.
Whether discussing bovine growth hormone, molten-salt reactors, or baboon-to-human transplants, Beyond Engineering is an engaging look at modern technology and an illuminating account of how technology and the modern world shape each other.
Robert Poole has been A Senior Writer at Science and News Editor at Nature. He works now is a freelance writer for various publications, including Discover and New Scientist and is the author of Eve’s Rib.