Knowing Machines: Essays on Technical Change

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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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Page 26 - A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.
Page 24 - In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.
Page 24 - The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.
Page 27 - Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.
Page 32 - That the master manufacturer, by dividing the work to be executed into different processes, each requiring different degrees of skill, or of force, can purchase exactly that precise quantity of both which is necessary for each process, whereas if the whole work were executed by one workman that person must possess sufficient skill to perform the most difficult, and sufficient strength to execute the most laborious, of the operations into which the art is divided.
Page 24 - At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production...
Page 120 - This special property of digital computers, that they can mimic any discrete state machine, is described by saying that they are universal machines. The existence of machines with this property has the important consequence that, considerations of speed apart, it is unnecessary to design various new machines to do various computing processes. They can all be done with one digital computer, suitably programmed for each case. It will be seen that as a consequence of this all digital computers are in...
Page 33 - What is lost by the detail labourers, is concentrated in the capital that employs them. It is a result of the division of labour in manufactures, that the labourer is brought face to face with the intellectual potencies of the material process of production, as the property of another, and as a ruling power.
Page 25 - The instruments of -production wherewith material values are produced, the people who operate the instruments of production and carry on the production of material values thanks to a certain production experience and labour skill — all these elements jointly constitute the productive forces of society.
Page 180 - Most mathematicians who were educated prior to the development of fast computers tend not to think of the computer as a routine tool to be used in conjunction with other older and more theoretical tools in advancing mathematical knowledge. Thus they intuitively feel that if an argument contains parts that are not verifiable by hand calculations it is on rather insecure ground. There is a tendency to feel that verification of computer results by independent computer programs is not as certain to be...

About the author (1998)

Donald MacKenzie is Professor of Sociology (Personal Chair) at the University of Edinburgh. His books include Inventing Accuracy (1990), Knowing Machines (1996), and Mechanizing Proof (2001), all published by the MIT Press. Portions of An Engine, not a Camera won the Viviana A. Zelizer Prize in economic sociology from the American Sociological Association.

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