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Book details of 'Knowing Machines: Essays on Technical Change (Inside Technology)'

Cover of Knowing Machines: Essays on Technical Change (Inside Technology)
TitleKnowing Machines: Essays on Technical Change (Inside Technology)
Author(s)Donald MacKenzie
PublishedJanuary 1996
PublisherMIT Press
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Score: score: 3.0 ***--  Vote for this book

The Virtual Bookcase Reviews of 'Knowing Machines: Essays on Technical Change (Inside Technology)':

Reviewer Rob Slade wrote:
MacKenzie's varied essays are erudite and thoughtful, but it is difficult to find any common theme. Some appear to be explorations of sociological literature, others histories of technical development, and there is even one brief biography. Generally one can say that each chapter looks at how machines, particularly computers, have, and sometimes are, evolved. (For those who may be misled by the title, the book has nothing to do with cognitive science.) While the background study is impressive (a quote from Babbage shows that he was well aware of the possible negative consequences of job automation), a lack of feeling for technical realities occasionally shows through. An assertion that projections of computing power are self-fulfilling prophecies fails to take into account the difference between technical and business aspects of computer development. The thesis that nuclear weapons can be "uninvented" through the loss of "tacit knowledge" (cultural and almost kinesthetic information) fails to understand that chefs rely on such tacit knowledge for much of their art, but that a loaf of bread can still be made by anyone with a cookbook. The examination of "Computer-Related Accidental Death" is particularly useless despite access to tremendous resources on the subject: three high profile events are allowed to completely skew the examination, human error is found to be a major factor (and is then left unexamined), and no conclusions are drawn except that computers are, so far, relatively safe. copyright Robert M. Slade, 1996

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Book description:

"These are stunning essays. MacKenzie's history of supercomputers and inertial navigation systems shatters the economists' belief that technology developed along 'natural trajectories' in the past; his analysis of the importance of tacit knowledge in the development of complex technology, however, also challenges the political scientists' belief that nuclear weapons, once constructed, can never be 'uninvented' in the future." -- Scott D. Sagan, Stanford University Ranging from broad inquiries into the roles of economics and sociology in the explanation of technological change to an argument for the possibility of "uninventing" nuclear weapons, this selection of Donald MacKenzie's essays provides a solid introduction to the style and the substance of the sociology of technology. The essays are tied together by their explorations of connections (primarily among technology, society, and knowledge) and by their general focus on modern "high" technology. They also share an emphasis on the complexity of technological formation and fixation and on the role of belief (especially self-validating belief) in technological change. Two of the articles won major prizes on their original journal publication, and all but one date from 1991 or later. A substantial new introduction outlines the common themes underlying this body of work and places it in the context of recent debates in technology studies. Two conceptual essays are followed by seven empirical essays focusing on the laser gyroscopes that are central to modern aircraft navigation technology, supercomputers (with a particular emphasis on their use in the design of nuclear weapons), the application of mathematical proof in the design of computer systems, computer-related accidental deaths, and the nature of the knowledge that is needed to design a nuclear bomb.

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