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Author: Bradford Lee Eden
Title: Rosalind Williams's Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2004

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Source: Rosalind Williams's Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change
Bradford Lee Eden

vol. 7, no. 2, August 2004
Article Type: Book Review

Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change

Bradford Lee Eden, Ph.D.

Head, Web and Digitization Services
University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries

Williams, Rosalind. Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

This book is an attempt to examine the changing role of technology in contemporary life from a humanities perspective. The author, a cultural historian in MIT's administration whose grandfather was one of the founders of modern chemical engineering at MIT, discusses our society's obsession with technology and technology-driven change, and specifically how information technology does not just influence culture and society, but in fact is itself inherently cultural and social.

There are two paths of thought that the author continually brings out throughout the book: first, this book is about change at MIT, how change in technology itself has brought about change in the institution, and how the institution itself has changed along with technology; and second, the author's personal thoughts, reflections, and experiences as an historian and long-term administrator at MIT, both historically through her grandfather's legacy and empirically through her own administrative experience as MIT's Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education from 1995 through 2000, and currently as Director of MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society. While the author does an admirable job of bringing out the second path of thought, overall the book is more of a recitation of administrative and managerial change at MIT in the last one hundred years, and more specifically in the last thirteen years.

The chapters themselves are divided into specific administrative events that have taken place at MIT since 1994. Chapter 1 "Living in a Technological World" sets the background for the book by discussing the life and work of Warren Kendall Lewis (1882-1975), the author's grandfather, and his work at MIT. Technological innovation, change management and the information revolution are discussed in relation to her grandfather's career, and eventually to the changes within MIT itself. More than anything, the author tries to link change with the development of community at MIT in the last thirteen years, and to set up the organizational structure of the rest of the book. Chapter 2 "The Expansive Disintegration of Engineering" is basically a history of the discipline of engineering, broadly at first and then specifically at MIT, and how technological change has essentially changed the organizational and administrative structure of departments and disciplines at MIT. In Chapter 3 "Technology and Business" the author moves the focus to a historical recounting of attempts at reengineering the administrative and academic structures at MIT from 1993 through 1999. The author then moves into a description of the work of a Task Force on Student Life and Learning that was formed and did its work at MIT from 1995 through 2000 in Chapter 4 "Technology and Community." It is in this chapter that the author spends most of her time philosophizing and confronting the issues that change in technology brings about in community, specifically on the student and faculty population at MIT. With Chapter 5 "Men and Women in a Technological World" the author grapples with the issues of women at MIT, along with gender and technology in a male-dominated field like engineering and specifically in the male-dominated world of MIT, where gender discrimination and gender bias are often interconnected. A large portion of this chapter looks at gender bias and gender issues in both the engineering profession and at MIT. Finally, in Chapter 6 "Coda: Living in a Historical World" the author discusses her own personal experience with the September 11, 2001 tragedy, and how disasters are revelations into the evolutions of community and interconnectedness.

I think that my biggest concern about the book is that the title does not adequately reflect the content of the book. While the author does try to discuss technological change from a historian's perspective, in the end this book is mainly a semi-interesting account of administrative change at MIT. Given that MIT Press is the publisher of the book, it follows that they would publish a book about the institution that supports them. In the end, however, the reader is left wondering whether the book is more of a personal genealogical musing and an institutional history, as well as a history of the engineering profession in the 20th century, rather than a book on technological retooling from a humanities perspective.