Engineering Technoculture in the 1960s


From Matthew Wisnioski’s Engineers for Change: Competing Visions of Technology in 1960s America:

[James D. Horgan] argued that technology and culture shaped each other reciprocally and that human values were an essential consideration in any technical problem. Selecting goals after reflective interrogation of one’s assumptions, comparing those goals to existing conditions, and acting upon them would bring technology closer to human needs. Design was a community responsibility, but engineers had a special obligation to consider technology’s social effects. In all aspects of their lives, engineers could serve human needs by means “partly political, partly technological, and partly a return to a life style that recognizes man’s passion to create, to love, to play.”

Cases where engineers used technological critiques to formulate their own theories of social action were the exception rather than the rule. More than anything else, theories of technological politics served as organizational aids and as grounds for collective discussion among concerned professionals. Rank-and-file engineers and industrial scientists published alternative newsletters — including Pacific Telephone and Telegraph’s AT & T Express, Standard Oil’s Stranded Oiler, General Electric’s GE Resistor, and Bolt, Beranek and Newman’s (BBN) Signal/Noise. In this underground press, technology &society literature provided points of reference and solidarity. The first issue of Signal/Noise described the origin of an “underground” at BBN. In the winter of 1968 – 1969, a group of engineers formed with the purpose of “reading, studying, and discussing” Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man; participation grew and the meetings expanded to “a general critique of society and of the life and work of technical workers.” A near universal concern in these papers was unemployment attributed to the economic effects of the Vietnam War. 

On the whole, engineers ’appropriation of technological politics was unidirectional. That is, engineers encountered ideas in this vein through the published writings of intellectuals. Engineers ’appropriation of an ideology of technological politics, however, should not be underestimated. Reconciliation with technology’s critics introduced many of the effects associated with ideological conversion. They challenged conceptions of what it meant to be an engineer. They created an awareness of one’s subjecthood in the System, ”which engendered individual autonomy. They provided a specialized language that contributed an imagined solidarity. Finally, because disgruntled engineers introduced themes of technological politics in professional venues, it was not enough for their leadership simply to dismiss critics as antitechnology cranks.

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