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Author: Dale A. Stirling
Title: Rosalind Williams's Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2003

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Source: Rosalind Williams's Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change
Dale A. Stirling

vol. 6, no. 1, April 2003
Article Type: Book Review

Rosalind Williams's Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change

Dale A. Stirling

Intertox, INC.

Williams, Rosalind. Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 2002. $27.95. Cloth. ISBN 0-262-23223-5. 252 pages.

Most books on technological change are concerned with theory, concepts, and applications. At best they are comprehensive and at worse they are stuporous. However, an occasional book on technological change goes "outside the box" to examine issues from a cultural viewpoint. This is one of those few books. The author first speaks of living in a technological world by introducing her grandfather, a professor of engineering at MIT. Although groomed to be a farmer, science and engineering held more personal value for Lewis and in 1908 he received a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. She notes that the farmer's boy was hijacked by the twentieth century (pg. 4.). Linking her grandfather's experience at MIT and her own as Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education, provides the essential framework of the remainder of the book. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book is the author's examination of what she terms "the expansive disintegration of engineering." Her point is that the traditional demarcation between disciplines is disappearing as technology forces us to consider concurrent and overlapping theories, applications, and solutions. In the subsequent two chapters, the author focuses on technology and its impact on, and relationship with, business and community. Naturally, she uses MIT to demonstrate—including its effort to reengineer in the 1990s—the school's response to the tragic death of a freshman by alcohol poisoning, and a space shortage crisis in the mid 1990s. The fifth chapter takes on the most personal meaning as it regards gender issues in a technological world. At MIT the author and other women made up just 16% of the faculty. But despite this, she notes that "gender discrimination today is not a problem of women being excluded from engineering, by and large. It is a problem of women excluding themselves because, to use a phrase I hear from women all the time, "who needs it?" (pg. 203-204). This book might have ended here, but the events of September 9, 2001 prompted a different finish—a Coda, if you will. The author shows technology's dark side and its relation to deliberate human action.

Retooling is a great book about changes brought about by technology. Using a wistful tone throughout, the author sheds interesting light on the human dimension of technology. This is a book that demands reading based on one's personal inclination. This is so because there is relatively little theory or application involved—rather, it's a book to curl up with rather than to pore through. Overall, this reviewer has little to quibble with the author; however, I do question the author's perspective on the impact of technology. Although she recognizes technological change has dominated this age, she falls into a familiar trap—telling us that current technological change is somehow more than change that occurred in the past. She fails to understand that we are creatures of our environment and tend to view it within the confines of our own existence and experience. However, technological change has always existed—it has been an ongoing process since humankind first made anything that impacted his or her environment (whether a fire pit, the lever & fulcrum or the wheel). Therefore, every age has been dominated by technological change—just at differing scales. It is difficult to quantify the impact of technological change until well after the change has occurred. I don't believe we are at the threshold, for instance, to fully understand the impact of personal computers. It will happen, but not now.