Knowing Machines

Essays on Technical Change

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.

Table of Contents

  1. Acknowledgments
  2. 1. Introduction
  3. 2. Marx and the Machine
  4. 3. Economic and Sociological Explanations of Technological Change
  5. 4. From the Luminiferous Ether to the Boeing 757
  6. 5. Nuclear Weapons Laboratories and the Development of Supercomputing
  7. 6. The Charismatic Engineer (with Boelie Elzen)
  8. 7. The Fangs of the VIPER
  9. 8. Negotiating Arithmetic, Constructing Proof
  10. 9. Computer-Related Accidental Death
  11. 10. Tacit Knowledge and the Uninvention of Nuclear Weapons (with Graham Spinardi)
  12. Notes
  13. Index