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Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change

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Overview

When Warren Kendall Lewis left Spring Garden Farm in Delaware in 1901 to enter MIT, he had no idea that he was becoming part of a profession that would bring untold good to his country but would also contribute to the death of his family's farm. In this book written a century later, Professor Lewis's granddaughter, a cultural historian who has served in the administration of MIT, uses her grandfather's and her own experience to make sense of the rapidly changing role of technology in contemporary life.

Rosalind Williams served as Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education at MIT from 1995 through 2000. From this vantage point, she watched a wave of changes, some planned and some unexpected, transform many aspects of social and working life--from how students are taught to how research and accounting are done--at this major site of technological innovation. In Retooling, she uses this local knowledge to draw more general insights into contemporary society's obsession with technology.

Today technology-driven change defines human desires, anxieties, memories, imagination, and experiences of time and space in unprecedented ways. But technology, and specifically information technology, does not simply influence culture and society; it is itself inherently cultural and social. If there is to be any reconciliation between technological change and community, Williams argues, it will come from connecting technological and social innovation--a connection demonstrated in the history that unfolds in this absorbing book.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
As the subtitle of her book suggests, Williams is a cultural historian. From 1995 through 2000, she was the dean of students and undergraduate education at MIT. As a humanist at a school known mostly for engineering, she is able to offer a fresh take on the impact of technology on society. Her narrative is laced with family and childhood stories (her grandfather came to MIT in 1901, little knowing that he would never return to the family farm), which helps readers understand how technology affects us on a personal level. David C. Mowery and Nathan Rosenberg's more scholarly Paths of Innovation also discusses the consequences of technological change, but while it provides evidence of how technological innovation in the United States led to strong economic growth, it does not delve into the social consequences. Easy to read and understand, Williams's work provides interesting insights on modern culture and our obsession with technology. Recommended for large public and academic libraries.-John B. Napp, Univ. of Toledo Lib., OH
Kirkus Reviews
The author chronicles her five years as dean of students and undergraduate education at MIT (1995–2000) to show how one of the world’s great seats of technical knowledge struggled with the impact of its own principal product: innovation. Williams is the granddaughter of Warren Kendall Lewis, who came to MIT in 1901 hoping to take some knowledge of agronomy back to his Delaware family farm. Instead, he stayed to teach and shape a renowned chemical engineering curriculum that ultimately helped hasten the demise of thousands of small farms. His granddaughter uses this family tale as a parable for technological change reverberating in ways unforeseen even by those who labor to foster it. She portrays MIT in the ’90s as an institution with an unparalleled engineering tradition at its core that had an increasing number of students more interested in acquiring the abstract skills of manipulating computer code and electronic information than in building bridges, airplanes, and oil refineries. Suddenly, it was unclear exactly what an engineer was or was supposed to do. Falling back on the broadest possible definition of an engineer as a person who "solves problems" was only a little help as the faculty and administration tried to bridge apparent gaps in both curricula and the university community. To make matters worse, the school’s costs and revenues were taking separate paths; insolvency was a projectible fact. Williams (now director of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society) goes on to detail the "retooling" of MIT in terms of new organizational structures and goals that include a formal corporate "reengineering" project that, to her surprise, got much stiff resistance inside theuniversity. Millions were spent on accounting software to just to stay even; efficiency measures threatened to depersonalize processes at every turn, and those biased in favor of innovation merely for its own sake had to be identified and brought on the carpet. An epic account of the struggle to humanize engineering education.
From the Publisher
"... a fascinating account of the new relationships between technology and culture... a literary jewel." Manuel Castells Project Muse

"An epic account of the struggle to humanize engineering education" Kirkus Reviews

"Easy to read and understand, William's work provides interesting insights on modern culture and our obsession with technology." John B. Napp Library Journal

"Rosalind Williams... has written a very personal, autobiographical book." Paul E. Ceruzzi Isis

"We have Williams to thank for a thoughtful, cogent, and historically well-informed analysis of the engineering profession." Karl Stephan IEEE

"Provides interesting insights on modern culture and our obsession with technology." John B. Napp Library Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262232234
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 8/21/2002
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.37 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Rosalind Williams is Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology in MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society. She is the author of Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change (MIT Press, 2002).

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Table of Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments
1 Living in a Technological World 1
2 The Expansive Disintegration of Engineering 29
3 Technology and Business 91
4 Technology and Community 145
5 Men and Women in a Technological World 197
6 Coda: Living in a Historical World 215
Notes 225
Index 249
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