Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology

By Bonhomme, Mary S. | ASEE Prism, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology


Bonhomme, Mary S., ASEE Prism


Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology

By Robert Pool. Oxford University Press; 1997; 358 pp., $30. Reviewed by Mary S. Bonhomme

Technology and the engineering behind it is really "the product of a complex interplay between its designers and the larger society in which it develops," according to Robert Pool's Beyond Engineering. The book, part of the Sloan Technology Series on the impact of technology, is written for the nontechnical reader, but is also of interest to the technical reader.

Pool's thesis is that development of any technology is profoundly influenced by many nontechnical factors, including its history, business implications, complexity, and the degree to which society controls it. For example, nuclear power has its origins in wartime, and remained under government control because it was seen as a strategic advantage in the Cold War.

Pool also uses some lesserknown facts about famous success stories to back up his analysis. For example, he shows that the triumph of the gas-powered internal combustion engine over steam-powered automobiles was more a victory of business practices than of engineering, and was helped by a dose of plain bad luck for the competition. An epidemic of hoofand-mouth disease in 1914 prompted the removal of public horse troughs to prevent the disease's spread, thus making easy access to the "fuel" for steam powered automobiles nearly impossible. …

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