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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE Introduction As befits an academy of engineers in concluding the observance of its 25th anniversary, this volume, like the symposium from which it derives, was conceived as an exercise in professional self-education. We hope it will, at the same time, contribute to the wisdom and understanding of readers from the broader community. To both ends, I want here, as best I can, to put the contents of the book into an appropriate conceptual framework. The volume as structured reflects this framework, but making it explicit may be useful. When the committee charged with planning the symposium met to implement the assigned theme of engineering and society, we quickly found that we shared a common view. Though we expressed it in different words, we agreed that engineering, far from interacting with society from outside as often assumed, is in reality an integral part of the social fabric. Engineering, that is, constitutes a social activity in the same way as do business, government, religion, the fine arts, and the other areas of activity that humans pursue. The sum of these activities, including engineering, makes up what we call society. Thus, the question is not one of engineering and society, but engineering in society. The committee does not claim any special wisdom for this view. When looked at directly, it is so obvious as to hardly need saying. Unfortunately—and unproductively—it is not the view that prevails. Most people, I think it fair to say—and I include engineers in “most people”— unconsciously regard engineering as somehow apart from society. Engineering, like technology as a whole, provides good things or terrible problems for the society, but, whatever it is, it takes place somewhere “out there.” In a university such as my own, it is something exotic and mysterious that goes on by itself
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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE in the school of engineering. In the media, the idea frequently shows up in the phrase “the impact of technology on society” (though, curiously, the impact of society on technology is rarely mentioned). This notion encourages the all-too-frequent image of a technology relentlessly in the driver's seat and outside the checks and balances of the social order. To what extent this volume succeeds in departing from the stereotype, the reader must judge. Certainly, the symposium on which it is based was put together with that goal in mind. The title of the symposium, “Engineering as a Social Enterprise,” was chosen to imply that engineering functions inseparably. from the society of which it is a part. To operate within that reality, we need to comprehend better than we do what requirements and constraints are put on engineers by the rest of society and what role the engineer realistically can or should play in that society. To say that engineering must be seen as an integral part of society is one thing; to analyze it as such, however, is quite another. To think about the problem, we need some kind of mental model, and the stereotypical one of separate entities clearly will not do. A more realistic possibility, which engineers should find congenial, is what has been termed the sociotechnical system. Engineers have to deal with systems—technical systems—all the time and are familiar with how they need to be subdivided for analysis. In the sociotechnical model, the entire society is visualized, as we engineers do in our technical work, as a vast integrated system, with the varied social and technical areas of human activity as major interacting subsystems. In this context engineering now appears as one of the subsystems. As in engineering practice, this subdivision is made so that each subsystem can be analyzed in quasi isolation. Such analysis must be carried out, however—and this is the crucial point—with attention at all times to the interactions between and constraints on the subsystems and to the eventual need to reassemble the system. Such reassembly is essential if the analysis is to be valid and the sociotechnical system is to work. To analyze the subsystems of the total society—industry, business, government, engineering, and so forth—they must be divided in turn into sub-subsystems and subcomponents; these must then be examined individually with an eye again toward reassembly. Engineers are comfortable with such a systems approach. The initial sociotechnical system, of course, need not be all of society; more usually it will be some functional system within it, such as an airline, hospital, or electric-power network. This sociotechnical system will then have its own social and technical subsystems. Whatever its identity and makeup, however, the initial functional system must operate within the constraints of the overall society. How we organize the analysis in a particular case is a matter of analytical and hierarchical detail. The important thing here is the integrative concept of the sociotechnical system. The analysis of all of society as a sociotechnical system would obviously
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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE be a tall order—and that is clearly a blatant understatement. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that society and its major subsystems are all adaptive systems—they change with time in ways that allow them to work better, function more or less at the level they currently do, or at least survive. The overall society adapts to take account of changes originating in its subsystems, and the subsystems adapt in relation to changing demands from other subsystems and from needs of the society as a whole. Engineers, unfortunately, have not had much experience in analyzing even adaptive technical systems; that limited art is only now at the conceptual stage. The image of engineering as an adaptive sociotechnical subsystem functioning within the adaptive sociotechnical system of society presents a daunting model to implement. It certainly comes closer to reality, however, than the model of engineering and society as distinct and separate entities. It can at least help inform and orient our thinking. The aim of the organizing committee from the outset was for a structured set of presentations cumulatively related to the overall theme. We hoped the whole, like the sociotechnical system itself, would be more than the sum of the parts. We were fortunate to engage for the symposium a historian (with an early engineering education), an anthropologist/archaeologist, an economist from industry, and three engineers, one recently in government, one in academia, and one in industrial research. We believe such diversity provides a needed interdisciplinary perspective. The first two essays relate to the overall sociotechnical system. Thomas Hughes provides a historical and historiographic point of view. As you will see, historians of technology have arrived at the same sociotechnical model to which engineers, I believe, must be driven by logic and their own experience. Robert McC. Adams examines the dynamic interplay between society and its technological subsystem as a complex but unitary relationship in which it is difficult to distinguish with sufficient clarity the intangible but powerful influence of social values either as agencies of change or resistances to change. The third and fourth essays offer views from the standpoint of two major organizational subsystems of society, business and government. Marina Whitman treats business in terms of the growing tensions and challenges for engineering and engineers in the auto industry as a result of demands for economic growth and jobs and for safer and more environmentally benign automobiles. John Fairclough examines government's desire to ensure economic growth through an orderly and coordinated process of scientific research and the development of a healthy engineering research and development enterprise. The final two essays offer views of the sociotechnical system by practicing engineers. In doing so, they discuss engineering's response to societal forces in terms of technological delivery systems, and speculate on the core purpose of engineering. George Bugliarello assesses the current social environment for dealing with technological change, as well as expectations of engineering that are frequently at odds with the way engineering is actually taught and practiced.
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ENGINEERING AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE Robert Lucky offers a model of the sociotechnical system with examples to show that technology in the future will probably continue, as it has in the past, to both lead and follow social change. We invite you, as you read the essays, to think about them in light of the sociotechnical model put forth above. The essays may not invoke the model explicitly or use the words employed here, but it does, we believe, provide a useful intellectual framework. If you are an engineer, we hope you will be convinced—if you are not already—of the necessity of paying increased attention to the complex social ramifications of what we do. Given the internal demands of our profession, not all engineers can or should function as what one sociologist has called “heterogeneous engineers.” To perform engineering's task as a social enterprise, however, the profession as a whole will need to act more consciously in that mode than it has in the past. Somewhere in his writings, the late, eminent social critic Lewis Mumford said, “The main lesson that history teaches is—prepare for the unexpected.” As the Academy proceeds into its second quarter century, we hope this volume of essays will in some small way help our colleagues —as well as the lay public—to make that paradoxical preparation. WALTER G. VINCENTI Symposium Chairman
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