inspiring the next generation of science, technology, engineering, arts, & mathematics (steam) leaders

History of Technology and Society

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Historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science and technology study the ways in which social, political, and cultural choices influence the direction of scientific research and the design of artifacts. Contrary to what you may have been taught as engineers, design is not a purely rational process. Human choices, laden with value judgments, inform every stage of the engineering enterprise, from conception and invention through innovation, marketing, and final production.

This course takes an historical approach to the study of how human values have shaped engineering practice by looking in depth at a wide range of historical case studies drawn from both civilian and military technologies in the United States. The three examples covered in the course include 20th century American systems of mass production, the decision to drop the atomic bomb, and the development of the Internet. The goal of the course will be not only to enhance students’ understanding of individual case studies, but to increase their appreciation for the social nature of technological change – that is, how political, social, cultural, and personal values infuse the design, production, and diffusion of material products.

HTS 2084 course taken at the Georgia Institute of Technology.


The following are short essay assignments written by me. For more documents, scroll to the bottom of the page.

What is technology, according to David Nye? Why is it hard to define?  

The word ‘Technology’ is hard to define. According to David Nye, ‘Technology’ is ‘an annoyingly vague abstraction’. In writings today, it is used as a synonym referring to skills, processes, or even objects such as computers and telephones. The word comes from the broad German word ‘technik’ which meant the totality of tools, machines, systems and processes used in the practical arts and engineering. Before 1855, people spoke of the ‘mechanic arts’, the ‘useful arts’, ‘invention’, or ‘science’ in contexts where they would use the word ‘technology’ today. The useful arts included any activity that transformed matter for human use. Often the construction of technology seem to be deduced from pure science alone. However, history shows that technology is not always invented by applied science. Inventors such as the Wright Brothers who designed and tested the bicycle, and Thomas Edison who built his electrical system, did so before having a scientific explanation for how they worked. Thus by the early 18th century, the term evolved into English as ‘a description of the arts, especially the mechanical'.

The meaning of the word ‘Technology’ gets more complicated, as it encompasses not only modern complex systems but also the low technologies such as systems, machines, and techniques that underlie a civilization.  Lewis Mumford in 1934 referenced to this when studying how each particular time period in a civilization relies on a distinctive set of machines, processes, and materials. Therefore another way to define ‘technology’ is in terms of evolution.  For example, the Homo erectus used a hand axe 1.6 million years ago and later Homo sapiens have been using tools to capture animals, create fire and build shelters. The meaning and purpose of these machines is linked to its social pattern. Learning to use tools was a crucial step in the species development both because it increased adaptability and because it led to a more complex social life. Therefore, technologies is a capacious term referring not only the objects, but also the skills needed to use them and how people incorporate it in a particular period of time.

David E. Nye, 2007. Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Reprint Edition. The MIT Press.

According to David Nye, does technology control us? 

People find technology to be deterministic, however according to David Nye, history holds many counter examples to apparently inevitable technologies. For example, the Japanese adopted the guns from the Portuguese in 1543, but then rejected because they had little symbolic value to warriors. Another example is the Amish who do not permit any device to be used before they have carefully evaluated its potential impact on the community. David Nye finds that technology does not control us, but instead merely social constructions do. The new technologies are shaped by social conditions, prices, traditions, popular attitudes, interest groups, class differences, and government policy. For example, the television was shaped by cultural choices by being funded by advertising and showing primarily programs for entertainment.

Some people feel that because they are dependent on a system, that they are being controlled by it. This is not entirely the case, for example the paved trails and cycling lanes that are part of the bicycle system in some countries arose as the commitment of hundreds of thousands of persons. Similar example is the electrical grid system which was shaped by early generations and because it is difficult to restructure and undo an entire electrical grid system, it feels as though today it is the shaper of our environment. People today have become enmeshed in a web of technical choices made for them by their ancestors.

The design of any product involves a long adjustment period, where societies shapes and chooses or refuses a machine. During adjustment periods, one may feel powerless against technology because it comes with unpredictable usefulness and often unintended consequences. Edward Tanner notes that computer are expected to improve office efficiency, but in practice people are spending time doing routine tasks which secretaries used to do, and also suffering from health problems such as tendonitis and eyestrain. Computers was not a thing that came from outside society and had an impact in the United States, rather it was shaped by its social context. The human relationship to technology is not a matter of determinism; it is unavoidably bound up with consumption.

David E. Nye, 2007. Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Reprint Edition. The MIT Press.

How was the automotive landscape in America “muddled” in 1908? Why did gasoline-powered automobiles predominate after 1908?

In 1908, the automotive industry was only a dozen years old. Its landscape was muddled because by then it was still uncertainty on what automobiles were for. This was reflected in the lack of concrete characteristics defining the automobile. No particular size, power, features and price range clearly dominated the market. Even though gasoline reigned as preferred power source, steam and electricity still had their adherents. Some Americans even opposed the automobile. These were mainly people in the horse based economy, and farmers who complained that speeding automobiles raised dust clouds that damaged crops. After the opposition to the “auto” declined, the hope of car ownership spread throughout the country, and farmers were the first to adopt it for business and pleasure. That is, drive for the sheer joy of controlling a powerful, rapidly moving machine. It gave owners an outlet for individuality, the feeling of independence, and the ability to go where and when one wills. The possession of a car allowed one to go beyond the limits of the city as a form of recreational travel. At the time, America lacked good roads, only 8.66% of U.S. highways where surfaced, the remainder was dirt: dusty in dry weather, and muddy morasses in the rain. The gasoline-powered automobile was the best suited to meet the demand for recreational driving over rural roads. With no power lines or recharging stations, the electric car was unsuited to traveling over rough, hill country roads. Steam cars were fast and virtually impossible to stall on steep hills or in bottomless mud, but because they lacked condensers, they needed to be replenished with water as often as fuel. Gasoline-powered automobiles matched the strength of the steamer and its fuel was readily available in stores. After 1908 the superiority of the Mercedes-style gasoline-powered car as a recreational vehicle drove both steam and electricity away.

Casey, Robert. “Automobility in 1908” The Model T: A Centennial History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2008. Print.

Contrast the main features of craft and mass automobile production. 

    The classic craft-production system consisted of a work force of skilled craftspeople who carefully hand-built cars in small numbers. Many were their own bosses, working as independent contractors or machine-shop owners. Companies with this production system such as Panhard and Levassor (P&L) did the design and engineering, determined vehicle specifications, ordered the necessary parts, and assembled the final product. Organizations were extremely decentralized; most vehicle parts came from individual craft shops scattered throughout the city. Variation in craft techniques inherently produced variations in automobiles. For example, contractors for P&L did not use a standard gauging system, and the machine tools couldn’t cut hardened steel. This resulted in ‘dimensional creep’ due to all the sequential filing required to fit all the parts together. As consequence, the craft production of automobiles lacked consistency and reliability. Craft automobile production concentrated on customizing each product to the precise desires of individual buyers. Only a low volume of automobiles were produced each year and costs per unit did not fall dramatically as production volume increases. Mass automobile production features techniques that reduce costs dramatically while increasing product quality. First is that the automobile is designed for manufacture, this meaning that the automobile is made with least number of parts and are simple to attach. And second, that the automobile is user-friendly to drive and repair. This eliminates the need for skilled fitters used in the craft production method. Ultimately, the key feature of mass automobile production was the complete and consistent interchangeability of parts and the simplicity of attaching them to each other. Contrary to craft automobile production, the same gauging system is used for every part, and standardization of parts is now possible due to new machines that can work on prehardened metals. With these features, assembly and production costs drop, allowing the sell of cheap automobiles in large quantities.

Womack, James P., Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos. “The Rise and Fall of Mass Production” The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1991. Print.

What are the two major schools of interpretation concerning the use of atomic bombs by the United States on Japan?

The two mayor schools of interpretation were the Traditional and the Revisionist interpretation. The first interpretation originated from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who was persuaded by top scientific administrator of the Manhattan Project, James B. Conant, to write an article to explain why the atomic bomb was used. The article presents the use of the bomb as the least “abhorrent choice” that accomplished its objective of ending the war quickly. Stimson reported that the atomic attacks were authorized in order to avoid an invasion of Japan, which, he said, might have been “expected to cost over a million casualties to American forces alone”. The government viewed that the use of convenient weapons would not end the war due to the Japanese unwillingness to surrender and determination to fight to the last minute. This article influenced popular views about Truman’s decision to use the bomb. The Revisionist interpretation questions an existing widely held view with new available resources. This interpretation points out that historical evidence makes it clear that the popular view was a mythological construct for the following reasons there were other options available for ending the war within a reasonably short time without the bomb and without an invasion; Truman and his key advisers believed that Japan was so weak that the war could end before an invasion began; and in the case of an American invasion, lives lost where far fewer than hundreds of thousands claimed. The revisionist interpretation seeks to answer two fundamental questions: was the bomb necessary at all, and if so, what did it accomplish.

Walker, J. Samuel. Prompt and utter destruction Truman and the use of atomic bombs against Japan. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Print.

How was the Manhattan Project a technological system?

The Manhattan Project was a large technological system, having major facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and elsewhere throughout the country. Thousands of workers, engineers, and managers as well as scientists labored at the heart of the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project was an industrial development-and-production undertaking, dependent on scientific laboratories and scientists for essential technical data and theoretical understanding of various processes. After invention and development, the Manhattan Project became a centrally controlled and coordinated production system. In this case, the military played the role of system building and the government funded the project. No individual system builders emerged because the problems were too complex and the knowledge and skill needed to solve them too specialized for any individual to assume the role of system builder. Independent inventors turned over their inventions to industrial corporations for development. Similarly, industrial firms under contract to the government contributed substantially to the development of discoveries and inventions of atomic scientists. Unlike other large technological systems, the Manhattan Project concentrated expenditure of human resources for the manufacture of a single product- the atomic bombs.

Hughes, Thomas Parke. "The Manhattan Project." American genesis: a century of invention and technological enthusiasm, 1870-1970. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1989. 381-421. Print.

What were President Truman’s options for achieving a complete American victory in late June and early July 1945?

There were three options other than an invasion that were seriously considered by American policy makers, all of which were mentioned at the June 18 meeting but not discussed at length. The first of the alternatives was to continue and intensify the bombing and blockade of Japan in hopes that this would force a Japanese surrender without an invasion.
The leading advocate General LeMay contended that air power could force the Japanese to surrender within six months before the Kyushu invasion began. He also saw the bombing of Japan as a way to underscore the importance of air power in hope to become a separate department of the armed forces after the war.  Marshall feared that bombing and blockade approach, even if successful, would take much longer than an invasion. A second possible alternative to an invasion was to wait for the Soviet Union to enter the war against Japan. The dominance of the U.S. Navy in Japanese waters made Soviet entry into the war less vital for the success of an American invasion. American planners viewed the prospect of Soviet entry as helpful in shortening the war but not as essential for winning it or as a substitute for an invasion. Another possible alternative that received the most attention was to mitigate the American demand for unconditional surrender by allowing the Japanese to retain the institution of the emperor. There was, however, a fourth alternative that might ease the president’s dilemma – the atomic bomb. If it worked, it provided a possible means to speed the end of the war without an invasion and without taking the risks that reduced the appeal of the other options.

Walker, J. Samuel. Prompt and utter destruction Truman and the use of atomic bombs against Japan. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Print.

In the view of Campbell-Kelly and Aspray, what shaped the development of the Internet?

In 1972, Arpanet was demonstrated at the first International Conference on Computer Communications. It displayed Arpanet’s capacity to undertake serious long-distance computing tasks. However, it was not the economics of resource sharing and the ability to use remote computers that caused the explosion of interest in networking. Instead it was the opportunity for communicating through electronic mail. The demand for e-mail facilities was a major driving force for the first non-ARPA networks. One of the most important of these was Usenet, a network formed in 1978 for colleges that had been excluded from connection to Arpanet. E-mail became an integral part of the modern way of doing business. Many government organizations such as NSF and NASA developed networks and joined the internet. Electronic mail was the driving force behind all these networks. It was cheap and it eliminated problems such as having two parties synchronize their activities and time zones. For the most part, the networks existing in 1984 served research organizations and engineering departments in universities. The internet would become an important economic and social phenomenon only when it also reached the broad community of ordinary personal-computer users. Once this much broader community of users started to use the Internet, people began to exchange not just e-mail but whole documents. The electronic publishing development that excited most interest in the Internet was the World Wide Web (WWW). This new publishing idea was originally developed by the CERN High-energy Physics Laboratory in Geneva in 1989. It was a hypertext system that would incorporate elements of multimedia in documents. As more people surf the internet, they continue to shape new capacities for the internet such as virtual shopping and on-line digital libraries.

Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, “From the World Brain to the World Wide Web”

How does Sterling explain the growth of the Internet? 

The growth of the internet began with an interest from the RAND Corporation to create a command-and-control network that would allow U.S. authorities to successfully communicate after a nuclear war. Because any central network would be an easy target for an enemy missile a proposal was made to create a network with no central authority, with each node in the network being equal to all other nodes. Secondly, messages would be divided into packets, each packet separately addressed so in case of an attack, packets would still remain airborne. The Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency funded a large project that used high-speed supercomputers as nodes. The first network of four notes was installed in December 1969 at UCLA and was named ARPANET. The computer could transfer data and perform long-distance computing. A year later, the main traffic on ARPANET was news, personal messages and electronic mail. Its decentralized structure was what made the growth and expansion of the internet easy. It was difficult to stop people from linking up and joining the network. The standard for communication is the TCP/IP, or “Transmission Control Protocol,’ which converts messages into streams of packets at the source, then reassembles them back into messages at the destination. IP, or “Internet Protocol,” handles the addressing. As long as individual machines were loaded with this software, they could easily connect to the network, regardless of brand name or ownership. Like the phone network, the computer networks became steadily more valuable as it embraced larger and larger territories of people and resources. Large institutions such as the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Department of Energy joined the network. ARPANET formally expired in 1989. The reason so many people join the network is for the freedom of connecting to any other node by simply obeying the rules of the TCP/IP Protocols.

Bruce Sterling, “From ARPANET to Internet”

Describe Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the World Wide Web. How did he realize this vision (Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web)?

Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the World Wide Web (WWW) is about anything being potentially connected with anything, anywhere. Inventing the WWW involved realizing that there was a power in arranging ideas in an unconstrained, web-like way. His vision was to somehow combine Hypertext with the Internet. Hypertext was “nonsequential” text, in which a reader was not constrained to read in any particular order, but could follow links and delve into the original document from a short quotation. The internet is a general communications infrastructure that links computers together, on top of which the Web rides. The fundamental property of his vision was to make it completely decentralized. This means someone new could start to use it without asking for access from anyone else. This is the only way that a web of links could spread evenly across the globe. At CERN, where Berners-Lee worked at, there was huge incompatibility between computers, and this made transferring information nearly impossible. It was clear that there was a need for something to keep track of different kinds of information at CERN. The Web’s existence would make the end of an era of frustration. Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for the system and decided on a name for it, World Wide Web, which reflects the distributed nature of the people and computers that the system could link. His first objective was to write the Web client – the program that would allow the creation, browsing, and editing of hypertext pages. Then, he wrote the code for the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), the language computers would use to communicate over the Internet, and the Universal Resource Identifier (URI), the scheme for document addresses. Then he created the point and click browser/editor called the WorldWideWeb, which worked with Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), which describes how to format pages containing hypertext links. He wrote the first Web server – the software that holds Web pages on a portion of a computer and allows others to access them. The next step was to make a web browser interface that could work on any kind of computer. And finally he created the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) which made a huge amount of the information that was already on the Internet, such as news articles, available on the Web. By Christmas Day 1990, the WorldWideWeb browser/editor was working on his computer and communicating over the Internet with his server.

Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web (Harper Business, 1999, 2000), selections

What are the principles of the Web, according to Berners-Lee (Berners-Lee, Scientific American)?

The Web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles. According to Berners-Lee, universality is the foundation principle underlying the Web’s usefulness and growth. It means that when a person makes a link, it can be linked to anything, no matter what software or hardware the computer has, or what language the user speaks and whether they have disabilities. The key to universality is the URL, which allows one to follow any link, regardless of the content it leads to. Links turn the Web’s content into something of greater value: an interconnected information space. Another important feature is decentralization, which means that one does not need to get approval from any central authority to add a page or make a link. All one has to do is use three simple, standard protocols: write a page in the HTML format, name it with the URL naming convention, and serve it up on the Internet using HTTP. The next principle of the Web is to have open standards, which is the ability to use HTML, URL, and HTTP without asking anyone’s permission and without having to pay. The next principle is to keep the Web separate from the Internet. The two layers, Web and the Internet, are two layers of technology that work together but can advance independently. For example, the Internet connection can speed up without the Web having to be redesign to take advantage of the upgrades. A Web user relies on an Internet that is free from interference. It means that a company does not interfere with how fast we communicate with any website throughout the internet; this is the principle of net neutrality. Another principle is allowing free speech and prohibiting snooping, which is to peek into packets of information a user is sending and monitoring how they surf the internet. The collection of private data allows for discrimination and is a threat to the web. The web is crucial to peoples’ lives today and disconnection from it is a form of deprivation of liberty. The internet lies on the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.

Tim Berners-Lee, “Long Live the Web,” Scientific American, December 2010

How do governments “control the Net” (Goldsmith & Wu)? Do government and corporate actions threaten the future of the Web (Berners-Lee)?

Government plays an important role in the control of the internet. They do this by controlling intermediaries such as Internet Service Providers (ISPs), search engines, browsers, the physical network, and financial intermediaries. Governments achieve a large degree of control by using ISPs to control or block unwanted Internet content such as pornography. Search engines like Google routinely blocks links because of possible governmental action to shut down websites violating because of copyright infringement. Governmental targeting of financial intermediaries can cripple an online industry, particularly one that is premised on convenience of payment. For example, to stop online cigarette companies from tax evasion, the government went after credit card companies, ordering them to stop taking online cigarette orders. Tight control over domain names is another effective way for nations to control Internet behavior. For example, the Justice Department seizes domain of sites that facilitate copyright infringement, replacing them with warnings against piracy. The simplest and most direct strategy that governments use in response to illegal Internet content from abroad is the physical arrest of individuals inside their borders. The Web is being threatened by government and corporate actions in different ways.  Large social-networking are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web. Wireless Internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments – totalitarian and democratic alike – are monitoring people’s online habits, endangering important human rights. These actions threaten the freedom to connect to with whichever Web sites we want. This is the very foundation of the internet, without it the ongoing evolution and scaling of Web is in danger.

Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu, Who Controls the Internet? (Oxford, 2006, 2008), ch. 5
Tim Berners-Lee, “Long Live the Web,” Scientific American, December 2010


Lesson Learned: Do the reading the day before and prepare one question to ask in class for the next day.

Course Materials