(ENGR 5101)


(c) G R Peters


I am not a historian, a sociologist nor a philosopher, so I am not qualified to instruct you in these disciplines. I am simply an engineer looking at our profession and some aspects of its interaction with society. It is an insider's view, but we are all part of the society affected by technology, so we should not feel disqualified from having a viewpoint. In some ways, since we may well have a better understanding of the technology than the public at large, our assessments should be better based. But are they any better?

In the first part of the course we have been describing the many achievements of engineering and science, particularly during and following the Industrial Revolution. People like us, involved in engineering every day, marvel at the progress. Indeed both perception and reality is that the day to day lives of people have improved immensely due to technological progress. But does it all lead to the unadulterated betterment of the human condition? Not everyone thinks so.

For the next few lectures, we will look at the place of engineering in society, from a particular point of view - and a point of view which many of us, including myself, find a bit skewed away from reality. It will be the perspective of a "critic and communications theorist" if we are to quote from the biographical note on the author of the book which we take as a text .

Neil Postman is a professor at New York University. He is the author of some 20 books, including Technopoly, in which he argues that our society, in addition to, and sometimes instead of, drawing the many potential benefits from technology, has allowed it to excessively dominate human behaviour and control our institutions and social systems. For example, he has argued that the overuse of computers in schools, in the absence of enlightened teachers, can detrimentally affect the educational process. He is not the only one to make that observation, and perhaps there is some truth in it. His book contains a chapter on the topic of computers (Chap 7).

He has invented the term "Technopoly" to describe the situation, and defines it as follows: (p52)


The submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.

He writes from a particularly American context, and says that at the time of writing, the United States is the only culture to have become a Technopoly, (p48) but others are striving to "catch up". He gives several reasons why he thinks that American society has been particularly susceptible.

Four reasons why Technopoly became rooted in American soil:

1) American character, e.g. the American love of newness, and the rapid acceptance that anything new must be better than something you already have.

2) Genius and audacity of American capitalists in 19 century. People like Edison, Morse and Bell were very successful in persuading people that new devices were the way of the future. Anything old was not worth preserving.

3) Success of technology in providing for wants. People were persuaded that they could abandon whole ways of doing things when a new technology emerged.. E.g. TV would be the source of all information, so there was no need for reading.

4) Devaluation of traditional beliefs. In other words, a loss of confidence in old belief systems.

I leave it to the student to examine these reasons, and particularly, to consider whether Canadian society is equally susceptible, or whether there are any real differences. The ongoing debate about the protection of "Canadian culture" under the NAFTA and other economic globalization trends might be relevant.


Clearly, it is this submission, referred to above. We have overdone it, he says. He believes that it is not good for human society to become a Technopoly. Moreover, at least some of the responsibility for the degeneration falls on technology itself, and as engineers who develop technology, it therefore falls on us.

He draws attention to the well known lecture given by C. P. Snow, (author and physicist 1905-1980) and published in 1959 (Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution) . But Postman points out that this proposed gulf which Snow identified between the scientists and the humanists (i.e. between science and the arts) was not really the problem. There is certainly a problem in Postman's view, but it is the much larger one between technology and everyone else in society; and is therefore much more important than just an academic difference of opinion, which is all that he thinks C P Snow's observation amounts to.

To quote further from Postman's introduction:

..Stated in the most dramatic terms, the accusation can be made that uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living.

This is certainty a pretty one-sided statement, and even Postman readily concedes that in spite of all that, technology is a friend. Moreover, he has to admit that the general public is even more persuaded of the bountiful side of technology. As he says, technology makes life easier, cleaner and longer. The problem is the price which technology extracts in return for its many benefits. So what is the engineer's responsibility to society, so that its benefits are not so much of a mixed blessing?

I think that some insight into the problem can be found in the statement that Postman uses as a frontispiece to his book. He quotes another humanist [3] as follows:

"Whether or not it draws on new scientific research, technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science."

-Paul Goodman, New Reformation

Now what on earth do we suppose is meant by this statement?

The first part is easy, the author is referring to the sometimes loose connections of engineering with science, a topic which we frequently have mentioned and will do so again. But he then makes the great leap to say that technology (i.e. we could say engineering) is not a branch of science at all.. It is a piece of moral philosophy!

If you are not certain just what "moral philosophy" is, and you look it up in a dictionary, you will find that moral philosophy refers to ethics. (Connected to, but a little more basic than what we will be discussing in the later part of this course.) But how can engineering possibly be a part of ethics, as distinct from science?

Perhaps it is that it is sufficient for science to know but engineering, in addition, must make choices.

Engineers work to solve technical problems for people, and while this requires knowledge, it also involves making choices. To give a simple  example, an engineer might decide to recommend the building of a dam to generate the electrical energy required for some industrial development, rather than the expansion of an existing thermal generating plant, or perhaps the construction of a nuclear power station.  All alternatives have environmental consequences. Of course relative costs and many other factors come into an engineering decision, but so do more intangible evaluations. In particular, which environmental consequence is worse, the potential damage to a river, or the increase in acid rain (from the burning of oil) and greenhouse gases? Or the risk of nuclear accident and the problem of the disposal of nuclear waste?  What if one alternative will result in more employment than the other?

The fact of the matter is, the usual and reasonable course of action for the engineer is to advise the client on all the pros and cons, and then say that on the basis of engineering (i.e. excluding the "moral" choices) the best alternative is "A", and the other part of the decision - i.e. where the social choices have to be made - is up to the client, especially if the client is the government. Later on in the course, we might recall this example, and discuss whether the engineer is able to divide his/her responsibility this way. Some would say not.

Does the engineer have to take responsibility for society? That would seem most unfair, if not totally presumptuous. Florman [4] (p72) tells us that it is not up to the engineering profession to decide what is good for society. In fact that is precisely also what Postman is saying, but perhaps for a different reason. Technopoly's experts, Postman  says, tend to be ignorant about any matter not directly related to their specialized area. But they claim dominion not only over technical matters, but social and moral affairs. Florman (who has most certainly read Postman - but I doubt the reverse is true) says stoutly that he does not believe in technocracy.

Whatever the solution is, the humanists and perhaps society in general, including engineers, have a problem here which we would like to understand a bit better.


King Thamus, and other one-eyed prophets

Postman starts his book with a chapter called "The Judgement of Thamus". He says the legend contains principles which will help us reflect wisely on technology in society. The story goes more or less like this:

An inventor of some fame comes to King Thamus with many innovations, including the invention of writing. The inventor says that this marvellous discovery of his will improve both wisdom and memory. (One should now reflect on the vital importance of memory in the absence of writing.)

Then Thamus gives his analysis of the impact of this technology. In the first place, says Thamus, you, the inventor, are not in the best position to judge the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. You have attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. "Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a recipe for recollection, not for memory.

And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought to be very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.

Then he adds the real kicker: "because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom, instead of real wisdom, they will be a burden to society."

Later, Postman admits that the good king is really a "one-eyed prophet" because he sees only one side of the story. But he likes this dubious and conservative analysis, because as he says, "we are surrounded by throngs of (other) one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo." He thinks it is important to have a few voices on the other side.

But as I said, and as he often does in his analysis, Postman goes on to point out that Thamus did not give a fully realistic judgement.

True, memory might be less well developed with this new tool of writing in place. And perhaps verbal instruction develops more wisdom in the student than he/she can get from simply reading the written word.

But his (i.e. Thamus's) mistake is that while he may have correctly identified the downside of this new technology (writing) he did not see the enormous benefit. The fact that there is both an upside and a downside to any technology should be obvious to us all, and "a wise man must begin his critique of technology by acknowledging its successes". To his credit, Postman usually does. But he obviously feels that far too much credit has been given to technology's success, and not enough attention paid to what has been lost, or the harm that has been done. The value in this is that we are made to reflect on the possibility of there being a mixed blessing from our engineering achievements, and to avoid falling into the trap of becoming "one-eyed prophets." Also do not forget that it is a legend, and it should not be taken literally. But there is a seed of truth in it.

One does not have to look far to find examples of situations where insufficient attention was paid to the potential adverse impact. Before the world became sensitized to environmental impact, (some people date this from Rachel Carson's (1907-1964) "Silent Spring", published in 1962) for example, this subject was hardly considered when a large construction project was to be put in place. We like to think this [overhead showing oil boom town in last century] could not happen today, and in Canada we have federal and provincial laws which require public review of proposed projects which might have adverse environmental impact. These assessments are done by teams of experts and regulatory agencies which include many engineers.

As important as we regard the physical and even economic impacts of our technology, it is not these which give the most concern to the humanist such as Postman. He is really concerned with the effect which science and technology has had on the attitudes and minds of humanity. Again we go back to that period when as we have said, science and technology transformed society - the emergence of the "age of reason", the "enlightenment" and later, the Industrial Revolution.


Before we leave the discussion of the first part of Postman's book, I want to provide some information on a relatively minor but somewhat derogatory reference (note 3 in Chapter 1) that he makes to an engineering professor named William Farish.

Postman (referring to another source) says that Farish was responsible for originating the idea of grading student's papers while he was a tutor at Cambridge University in 1792. He goes on to say that the whole idea of assigning numbers to academic performance is "peculiar", and is an example of how we  find it quite impossible to work without numbers, for they add authenticity, even when the things we are applying them to are non quantifiable - e.g. intelligence, in Postman's view.

In his short note on Farish, Postman tells a little story which is says isn't much of it, but it illustrates how little we know of Farish, and implies that perhaps he wasn't too bright.

In fact, we know a fair bit about Farish. He is the subject of some 6-7 pages  in the book "History of Engineering at Cambridge University, 1783 - 1965" by T.J.N. Hilken, published by Cambridge University Press in 1967.

William Farish was born in 1759 (i.e. about the time that James Watt was getting set up at Glasgow University).  He was one of Cambridge's pioneer engineering professors, credited with creating an  engineering curriculum which was eventually accepted for examination at Cambridge in 1865, against much conservative university opposition. In 1794  he was elected to the  Professorship of Chemistry.   Farish went on to develop a great body of knowledge on the rapidly developing technology of the industrial revolution during which he was living.  Based on  this experience, he set up his own engineering course. In 1813 he was elected to the Jacksonian Professorship at Cambridge.

The little story that Postman tells has to do with Farish's inventiveness and perhaps a bit of absent mindedness. It is more humorous than Postman portrays it, and not at all dumb, when the context is known. It seems that Professor Farish wanted to have flexibility in his room arrangements, and rigged up a partition which could be hoisted, by pulleys and counterweights, through the ceiling to the second floor level, thus making two bedrooms out of one, and at the same time enlarging the main floor space, or  left at the main floor, with the reverse effect on bedroom layout.

Postman tells the story this way: "One night, working late down stairs and feeling cold, Farish pulled down the partition.." He leaves it there, saying it is not much of a story. True, but he has left out the punch line.

According to Hilken, that night Farish had guests of opposite sexes in his two upstairs bedrooms separated by this "lowerable" partition. When he absent mindedly lowered his movable wall, they were suddenly in the same bedroom, and must have been quite surprised, either right away or when they awoke in the morning.

The story may be apocryphal, but at least it should be told properly. It just goes to show the danger of relying on secondary sources, which Postman apparently was doing in this case.


We are now working from Postman's second chapter, "From Tools to Technocracy", and go back a bit in time to observe that an intellectual revolution was already brewing long before Watt and even Newcomen (who died about seven years before Watt was born) came on the scene.

Francis Bacon was born in 1561, and Postman calls him the "first man of the technocratic age." This is a hundred years before Newcomen was born, so in comparison to the time in history which we have identified with the beginnings of modern engineering, this is obviously a bit early. Bacon was almost an exact  contemporary of Galileo (1564-1642) and (by the way) Shakespeare (1564-1616) and thus predates Newton, (1642-1727).

He lived and wrote at a period in history associated with the beginnings of the "enlightenment".  Other names prominent in the writings and thoughts of that period which lasted more than a century are, for example,  Voltaire, Rousseau, and John Locke, to name only a few.

But Bacon (later Sir Francis) is identified as  the first  to write enthusiastically about what he could see as the benefits of applying science and technology (at least as he could see it then) to human problems. Postman says that Bacon's aim was to "advance the happiness of mankind". This phrase has an interesting similarity to one of the first definitions of engineering that we run across, which I think originated with Smeaton (1724-1792) perhaps 150 years later: "the application of science for the benefit of mankind".

The society that Bacon observed was certainly not in great shape. He saw greed, mismanagement, bad government and ignorance, all taking their toll on the ordinary person. Bacon saw the application of a rational scientific approach to society's problems blocked by irrational ideas of the day. He crystallized the reluctance of the establishment of the day to adopt the modernizing influence of rational and scientific thought in four "idols".  Without getting too deeply into this philosophical study, "Bacon's Idols" are briefly as follows [5]:

1) The idol of the tribe:  the tendency to think that our perceptions are the same as the facts; drawing conclusions from insufficient evidence; an irrational search for certainty; etc.
2) The idol of the cave:  mistaken ideas derived from heredity; cultural "blinders" education which enforces approved tradition...
3) The idol of the marketplace:  most troublesome of all... the use of habitual words and conventional ideas to apply to new things...
4)  The idol of the theatre:  referring to established dogma.

For an interesting essay related to Bacon's ideas, and expressing doubt that his promises can ever be fulfilled, see Idols of Technology by William Leiss, in the web site course materials [5] . (Leiss' book is called "Under Technology's Thumb")

Sir Francis Bacon had a great influence on the thinking of his age and Postman calls him a "great propagandist". Although he himself was not much of a scientist, he prepared the way for the acceptance of science as "mankind's best weapon in the struggle to improve his condition, and to do it continuously."  Postman, of course, doubts the choice of this weapon (i.e. science) being recommended by Bacon. But as this one-eyed prophet often does, he opens the other one (to strain the metaphor) and quotes Stephen Vincent Benet's fatalistic advice:

Say neither...
"It is a deadly magic and accursed,"
Nor "It is blest", but only "It is here".

--Steven Vincent Benet, John Brown's Body, quoted in Postman. (Benet was an American poet, and published John Brown's Body in 1928.)

In other words, this is the way things are; make the best of it.

THEN CAME JAMES WATT... and Adam Smith.

Postman spent the previous chapter talking about the "tools" that Bacon and others like him thought might help humanity.  In Chapter 3, "From Technocracy to Technopoly" he describes how, in his view, the tools take control.

The desire of Sir Francis Bacon to find a means to better the life of the ordinary citizen of his day was hardly a misplaced one. Historians tell us that the great majority of the people were impoverished and powerless. The church promised them rewards in heaven, but for the present, life was "nasty, brutish and short," in the words of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Writing many years later, C P Snow  observed that "the Industrial Revolution, fruit of Baconian Science, was the only hope for the poor", to quote Postman again. Thinkers of the day began to see science as having great potential for social good.

As we have discussed, the years following James Watt brought technology, fast and furious. But Postman makes the interesting observation that in this period (1776 to be exact), a Scottish economist - who also had been at Glasgow University, where he was the professor of Moral Philosophy - called Adam Smith (1723-1790) published a classic paper entitled "An Enquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations". Anyone  who takes even one course in economics hears of this great document. (Few of us - not including me - have read it). But if we believe the experts, it laid the foundation for what we call the "free market economy". Postman says "he justified the transformation from small scale, personalized labour, to large-scale, impersonal, mechanized production." He lays a lot of the responsibility for the negative social impact of the Industrial Revolution at the door of this economist.

Watt died in 1819, so he could have read "Wealth of Nations", but he probably didn't. As we know, he was not very entrepreneurial, at least not until he joined up with Matthew Boulton. Maybe Postman overemphasizes the connection between the "downside" of the Industrial Revolution and Adam Smith, but a really strong free market spirit certainly got going in the nineteenth century. This was emphasized in the video we saw with James Burke at the start of the course.

Defenders of Adam Smith would say that there is no justification in connecting the undoubted abuse of workers, including rampant child labour, and much social uproar, with the growing entrepreneurial atmosphere. What is more, they would justifiably add, free marketers do not have a monopoly on greed. But I doubt that Postman would agree.

It seems to me that the beginnings of the development of the engineering profession in the nineteenth century must have been in an atmosphere of combined glorification and fearful resistance. There was much enthusiasm for better times, and admiration for technology. But there was also fear and loathing, and despair. The poet William Blake (1757-1827) wrote of the "dark Satanic mills" to express his opposition to all this pernicious development, and his hope for a return to more sensible times:

And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among those dark Satanic mills...

By the way, in the video "Out of the Fiery Furnace" we heard the stirring music of the hymn "Jerusalem" by Parry based on the poem of Blake from which this quotation comes. Blake, it is said, "abhorred the reductive, rationalist philosophy that served to justify the political and economic inequities attendant upon the Industrial Revolution" [6].


A very large part of what people saw going wrong with all those supposed good scientific advances and newly engineered factories was in the details. As someone famous said, "the devil is in the details." The effect of introducing machinery was (as usual) to reduce jobs. What used to take hundreds of cottage weavers to produce on hand looms could now be done in a factory by few dozen, with the new steam powered machines. The conventional, sophisticated argument is that while jobs are lost in one occupation, they are being created in others. All the worker needs to do is retrain. It only takes a glance at the news to see plenty of that kind of argument with regard to the present fishermen of Atlantic Canada, or the textile workers in the beleaguered clothing industry of Montreal.

Of course the rational and technological argument is not without merit. But the displaced workers in 1800 could not be expected to predict nor appreciate the future growth of rail transport, for example, and the thousands of jobs it would create, or even the need to keep the textile industry of Britain competitive, which it certainly became, to the benefit of thousands. All of this boiled over in about 1811, resulting in a movement known as the Luddites, (the origin of the name appears to be unclear) and for about 6 years bands of disgruntled mill workers smashed machinery and disrupted factories. The government put them down without mercy, and the name still stands for someone who rebels naively against technological "progress."

The Luddites were acting in self interest, and it is hard to blame anyone for that. But is also a hard fact of life that technological change, even for the greater good of society as a whole, hardly ever takes place without its individual causalities. Since engineers are often rightly associated with this kind of change, they will have to bear the appropriate responsibility. Perhaps they owe it to their clients and to the public to explain the consequences of changes in technology, and to support action to help technological transitions, which they should be able to see better than anyone else.



While it was engineering which was making many of the changes in the nature of work, and in public infrastructure, and so on; there were those who felt that science, which was such a wonderful tool for engineers, could be used to solve all sorts of human and societal problems. For example, why not apply it to human behaviour, politics and government? This, after all, was what Sir Francis Bacon was advocating in 1620.

As sceptical as Postman is about the unblemished benefits of technology in the industrial and economic matters, he is absolutely scathing in his assessment of the mis-application of science to social problems. I think he would call social science more of an oxymoron than "military ethics" (or maybe "civil engineering"(?)).

Postman takes the social sciences to task in his Chapter 9 called "Scientism". In itself, this is a derogatory term, and he is certainly quite negative (one might even say vicious) about social scientists, and what he thinks of the the blind application of scientific principles to human behaviour. Postman identifies scientism as one of the "pillars of Technopoly", and says it consists of "three interrelated ideas". These are: 1) that the methods of natural science can be applied to the study of human behaviour; 2) that social science generates specific principles that can be used to organize society on a rational and humane basis; and 3) faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system.

 One example of the mis-application of a powerful piece of theory to understanding the human condition was Social Darwinism, getting its name of course from Darwin's famous theory of evolution, published in 1859. (Charles Darwin (1809-1882) Full title of the publication: On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.)

Social Darwinism was claimed by its proponents (including Herbert Spencer, (1820-1903) an English philosopher)  to offer a scientific basis for laissez faire capitalism, and the individual's right to strive for economic and social objectives of his own choosing, and in his own way, and not to be interfered with by too much government regulation.  In this model, "survival of the fittest" is  as good  for society as it is for biological species.  Adam Smith would have loved it, except that he died in 1790.

Postman gives a couple of examples of pseudoscientific investigation which, he believes, lead only to obvious and well known facts of life. For example, there were the investigations of Stanley Milgram, published in 1974. [7]  These have to do with how a person with authority would be able to affect the behaviour of others, even when they know they should not do (for moral reasons) what they are being asked to do. The experiment went something like this. Three people took part: an "experimenter" (science authority figure), a "learner", undertaking memory tests in the scientist's lab, and a volunteer "subject". The "learner" was to undertake tests of increasing difficulty, and apparatus was set up so that the volunteer could administer electric shocks of varying intensity to the "learner"; the idea being that learning might be improved if failure was punished. The most severe shock (up to 450 volts) could seriously injure or even kill the learner. The volunteer subjects were enticed and pressured by the good doctor to administer the "shocks", and many did so, in compliance with what they perceived as a legitimate authority. As the "shock" was given following a failed test, the "learner", strapped in a chair, appeared to be in obvious pain.

The only thing was, the "learner" and the scientist  were deceiving  the person (the subject) giving the "shocks". No electrical shocks were actually going to the "learner", who (under instruction) was  faking the pain and distress. The whole thing was set up to see how much pain the subject would administer to the "learner" if he/she were instructed to do so in the name of science. The results of the experiment showed that many people gave severe shocks to the "learner" even though they really did not think they should. This was considered to be quite remarkable by many social scientists and others; i.e. that people will do terrible things they realize are wrong,  if they are told to do them by someone in authority.

The experiment and its assumptions reveal two things to Postman. One is the discovery of what he regards to be a totally obvious piece of human nature, by an unnecessary and perhaps unethical scientific experiment. But the other observation Postman regards to be even more important. In his careful set-up for the experiment, Milgram had polled psychiatrists to find out what they expected the result to be. A surprisingly large number of them expected that authority figures would not have such influence on the behaviour of people, based on their knowledge of human nature. Postman sees this as evidence of how a misplaced faith in science has supplanted common sense, apparently especially among American psychiatrists.

His central concern is that the practitioners of "scientism" use science as a source of belief, or even as a moral authority. He says it is "the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusionary belief, that some standardized set of procedures called "science" can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority." Faith in science then becomes a system of belief.

But we don't do this, do we?

It is not only social scientists that use the cloak of science to give their work an undeserved authoritative appearance, as Postman claims. Engineers pride themselves on scientific training, and their ability to solve problems. We also expect arguments to be backed up by data, and rationally presented. We engineers don't put too much stock in emotional argument and opinion.

With all the engineering glory around in the years following the Industrial Revolution, you would not be surprised to hear that engineers, too, felt that their great problem solving skills, based on science, had something to offer society at large. In the material on Science and Scientism on our web site, Dr Molgaard quotes an early engineering professor at Harvard University (no less):

"Are there no laws in this other realm of human relations which are just as inexorable as the physical laws with which we are familiar? Is there no law of compensation which is the counterpart of our law of conversation of energy?"

If you think of what the good professor is saying, we discover that he is doing exactly what Postman warns us about, and the clue is in the word "law". It sounds as if he is using science as a system of belief. But physical laws are only models of the real world, based on observed behaviour. We must be careful not to confuse the model with what is being modelled. The real world goes on behaving exactly as it wants to, independently of our models. Many engineering and scientific models of nature have been found to be inadequate, (think of the ether theory) or are valid in only limited circumstances.  These limitations are usually evident, if one looks deeply enough, but sometimes we forget them, to our peril.  For example Ohm's Law is a good predictor of the current which will flow through a wire due to a certain impressed voltage difference, provided the temperature of the wire is not too different from the temperature on which the "resistance" parameter is based. Resistivity is a function of temperature, as you probably know.

One can hardly leave this area of the application of technology to humans without mentioning the work of Frederick W. Taylor, (1856-1915) often identified as the father of "Industrial Engineering", or when we want to rise to a higher plane, "The Father of Scientific Management". Taylor's "Principles of Scientific Management" was published in 1911, and his work comes in for some attention by both Postman and Florman.

He studied in minute detail how workers in factories performed their jobs. Every motion was analyzed and timed, to see how it could be improved, and production thereby increased. Any task (e.g. lifting a hammer) could be characterized by a time and a motion. "Time and Motion " studies were used to rate tasks and worker performance.  The rate at which a worker performed could then be related to some standard, and the pay adjusted accordingly. One who worked at over 100% would get a bonus, or "incentive pay".

The approach does have the appearance - or reality -  of regarding people  as components in a mechanical, inhuman system. Labour groups and some engineers felt that this was rather exploitive, and a perversion of engineering methodology. According to Florman, Taylor's methods were soon banned in government funded operations. But some of the principles have been carried forward, (perhaps without the abuse and negative approach) and incentive plans are still used in industry today. The methods are still taught in programs in industrial engineering.

The work of Taylor contributed to the movement of engineers into the management of industry and therefore business management. At one time courses in engineering administration constituted a department at MIT. Over the years, in spite of the fact that many engineering graduates become managers of various kinds, and not only of engineering enterprises, such units do not exist in most undergraduate programs. (McMaster University in Canada being a notable exception). The business schools teach most of the courses in explicit industrial management, and as we all know, the combination of an engineering degree and an MBA is very popular.

Alas, the world is not a rational place..

What do we learn from all of this, i.e. what have we learned about the forays of science and engineering into the worlds of social behaviour, politics, and government, etc.? Perhaps it is that when we are tempted to expect human behaviour to always conform to what we think is sensible and logical, we should realize that we do not live in a rational world. As engineers, we may like to work in one, and might even strive to make the place more rational, but when we think about it, we might not like the result if we were to entirely succeed.

Of course all of this is not to wreck your faith in all you have learned about engineering so far. The engineering method is an excellent systematic approach, and uses organized knowledge of how the natural physical world behaves, (i.e. science) as approximated by mathematical models and guided by years of experience. But the models are not articles of faith; they are the results of observations and experience which are used to approximate nature until a better model comes along.

Moreover, there is another important dimension to our professional decisions, and that is what we generally refer to as "engineering judgement". Engineers very rarely have all the information they would like to have when considering the solution to a problem. Some of the information and data may be in conflict with other information. Non technical matters may have to be taken into account, and there may be no way to quantify the issue. In the end an engineer makes a judgement, and must then live with it.


We started this section of the course talking about prophets (of the one-eyed variety), and I return now to the tricky business of foretelling the future, especially the course of technological development. Indeed it is risky, even with two eyes, as a famous philosopher who made his living from baseball is reputed to have said:

...It is very hard to make predictions, especially about the future...
-Yogi Berra
(This may or may not be a genuine Yogi quote. A lot have been made up. It is also and perhaps more reliably attributed to the famous physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962). Reference available.)

Talking about the technological future may be an uncertain business, but it is also very popular with the public, especially the media. We persist in doing an amazing amount of it, although I sense that the pace of change in the last few years has made even the most enthusiastic futurists a bit more cautious. It is always fun to go back and look at predictions made years ago and compare with what actually happened. There are lots of these comparisons in the book by Schnaars [8], who shows that the success rate is around 20 %, and perhaps surprisingly, experts and non experts alike have about the same low performance.

For example, here are a few that one of the recent students  in this course collected from the internet.  I expect that many of these will be familiar to you, and some of them may not even be true.  (It is easy to create "urban legends".)

Assessments of technological innovations which the authors would like recalled:

Heavier than air flying machines are impossible
 -Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, 1895.

Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value...
 -Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre

The bomb will never go off.  I speak as an expert in explosives.
 -Admiral William Leahy, Atomic Bomb Project

I think there is a world market for maybe five computers
 -Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1949.

There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.
 -Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.

640k ought to be good enough for anybody.
 -Bill Gates, 1981

Source: Science and Technology Quotes, copyright 1995, Douglas Adams.  (Contributed by M J Osmond, Engr 5101, 1999)

Postman's Chapter 4 is called "The Improbable World" and in it he concentrates on the willingness of people to accept anything, if it is claimed to be based on technological progress or "predicted by a computer". He identifies, too, the source of at least some of the problem, in quoting that old iconoclast, H. L. Mencken (1880-1956): "there is no idea so stupid that you can't find a professor to believe it." In other words, sometimes people who should know better are taken in, and lend credence to crazy ideas.

Mind you, the big consulting firms and think tanks of the world, stuffed with engineers, economists and scientists, don't do a lot better. There is an article on the web site on predictions made by the Rand Corporation in 1968 (or thereabouts) for 1984 and the year 2000. It is amazing for the things they say, and perhaps even more so, for the things they don't say.

For example, by the year 2000:

The year 2000, seen from 1968

1. The population size will be up to about 5.1 billion.
(Actual about 5.5)

2. New food sources will have been opened up through large-scale ocean farming and the fabrication of synthetic protein.
-not happened on any large scale, although aquaculture is coming along. As far as I know, synthetic protein fabrication does not provide any food.

3. Controlled thermonuclear power will be a source of new energy.
-this is nuclear fusion, as distinct from conventional nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion is years away as a power source, even conventional nuclear is about at a standstill because of the public fear of accidents and the disposal of radioactive products. Apart from these problems, others such as premature and very expensive reactor maintenance is actually leading to the close down of atomic power plants in Ontario and New Brunswick. There are signs in Ontario that nuclear plants are being reactivated, at great cost.

4. New mineral raw materials will be derived from the oceans.
-There is little if any ocean mining, particularly directly from sea water, as was probably meant.

5. Regional weather control will be past the experimental stage.

6. General immunization against bacterial and viral disease will be available.
-Far from it. Note that AIDS was unknown at this time.

7. Primitive forms of artificial life will have been generated in the laboratory.
-I don't think there has been anything substantial.

8. The correction of hereditary defects through molecular engineering will be possible.
-Not quite, but there has been "progress", fraught with ethical controversy.

9. Automation will have advanced further, from many menial robot services to sophisticated, high-IQ machines.
Robotics has certainly advanced, but high-IQ?

10. A universal language will have evolved through automated communication.
-not unless it is English. Esperanto has not progressed.

11. On the moon, mining and manufacturing of propellant materials will be in progress.
-man landed on the moon in July, 1969. We are a long way from a mine.

12. Men will have landed on Mars, and permanent unmanned research stations will have been established there.
-Nope. Manned landing is now predicted for 2020. The unmanned Mars Lander was lost in 1999.

13. On earth, commercial global ballistic transport will have been instituted.
-Ballistic transport? They must have been looking for civilian uses for ICBM's

14. Weather manipulation for military purposes will be possible.
-Not as far as I know

15. Effective anti-ICBM defenses in the form of air launched missiles and directed energy beams will have been developed.
-air launched missiles are here. Directed energy beams could be lasers. Maybe the "Star Wars" program by the US military.

We can see that they were predicting largely on the basis of the extension of technologies in existence at the time. Mostly, the extensions have not reached nearly as far as the predictors thought they would. I find their dependence on incrementalism surprising, since we (and surely they did too) know that much innovation takes place because of the occurrence of completely new directions or "paradigm shifts". Of course that kind of technological advance is impossible to predict, anyway.

It is interesting to note some of the things that have come to pass, and they did not (or perhaps could not ) foresee. Computers were well established in 1968, but they completely missed seeing the enormous impact that would have. Along with most experts, they did not see anything of the personal computer, which was about to arrive, let alone the combination of computers with telecommunication. The conventional wisdom at the time was that the computer would remain as the computational tool of large companies and institutions.

There is almost no evidence that forecasters, professionals and amateurs alike, have any idea what our technological future will look like. But your client, and the public, will often want you to tell them what the future holds, and the engineer is supposed to know. You may make your predictions with all sorts of conditions and disclaimers, but be aware that these are usually forgotten when the expectations are not fulfilled because some assumption fundamental to the expectation turns out to be invalid. Sometimes there's no winning in this world, and we have to take the lumps that Shakespeare throws our way:

"For tis sport to have the enginer hoist with his own petar.."
Hamlet, Act iii Scene iv.


Postman regards medical science as an example of a hurried and mindless way of embracing Technopoly. He cites many statistics illustrating that American doctors, under the influence of a Technopoly, take a very aggressive approach to medicine. They prescribe more tests, do more surgery, use more antibiotics and do more x-rays than doctors in other countries.

He identifies several reasons for what he considers an overly technical approach to medicine in a Technopoly. People, including doctors, expect something other than a patient's description of his/her aliments to be used in making a diagnosis. Subjective forms of knowledge are viewed as having no official status, and must be confirmed by tests administered by experts. In fact, he points out, if all available tests are not utilized, and a patient is improperly diagnosed, it can lead to malpractice accusations against the doctor.

In addition, there are financial considerations. Non technological medicine is time-consuming. It is more profitable to get a CAT scan on a person with a headache than to spend time getting information about his/her sensations and experience.

The advance of medical technology promotes two key ideas, according to Postman:

1) that medicine is about disease, and not the patient;

2) what the patient knows is untrustworthy, what the machine knows is reliable.

Overall, Postman draws the following conclusions:

1) Technology is not a neutral element in the practice of medicine, doctors do not merely use technologies, but are used by them;

2) technology creates its own imperatives, and at the same time, creates a wide-ranging social system to reinforce its imperatives;

3) technology changes the practice of medicine by redefining what doctors are, redirecting where they focus their attention, and reconceptualizing how they view patients and illness.

As engineers, we are not in a strong position to defend medical technology against the assessment of Postman. But for a contrasting viewpoint on the development of medical technology, we use another James Burke video, "Social Aspects of Medical Technology" from the series "The Day the Universe Changed". (Bit scratchy, and bit padded, but ok. 52 min.)


Subject for Assignment 2.

See also the handout from the Globe and Mail by Andrew Nikiforuk on Computers in Schools.


"A developer is someone who wants to build a house in the woods. An environmentalist is someone who already owns a house in the woods."
....Your morning smile, Globe and Mail, 27 Feb 1999.

Some things depend on your point of view.

Postman eventually faces up to his responsibility, and addresses his readers' expected question: What action or procedure do you suggest to prevent the establishment of a Technopoly? You will note that he admits that critics do not usually appreciate this reasonable question. As critics, they think the job is done when they have raised the question. That is a neat acceptance of the sarcastic criticism levelled at the technical types (i.e. us) in the Tom Lehrer song concerning rocket designer Wernher von Braun:

Don't say that he's hypocritical,
Say rather that he's apolitical.
"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun.

The Problem as Postman sees it.

Postman tries to define the problem (p142). "The question is: who is to be the master? Will we control it, or will it control us? The argument, in short, is not with technique. The argument is with the triumph of technique, with techniques that become sanctified and rule out the possibilities of other ones."

So the question is then, who "sanctifies" the "techniques"? It does not solve the problem for the humanist (like the priest of old) to complain that the flock has chosen the wrong moral path; they (and this includes us) must surely have the freedom to choose. What must be learned are the limitations of the technology and how to make these choices with open eyes and with understanding.

What responsibility does the engineer have?  If the engineer has a role here, it might be in helping society with their choices among the technological paths. We could probably make it more clear to society what the potential downside of a particular technology is, and how it might affect the lives of people in ways they might not initially expect.  But that is rarely simple, and we have already seen how difficult it is to try to predict where technology will take us. What is more, and probably even more difficult (if not completely fruitless) is for engineers  to ask carefully what society wishes to achieve.  Postman is an expert in communication theory (not of the Marconi type, I would venture to say), and he can make it very clear that how you ask the question influences the response.

A couple of  really neat stories illustrate this, one of which is as follows:

To smoke or not to smoke, that is the question.

Two priests are unsure of whether it would be permissible to smoke and pray at the same time. So they both wrote to the pope. One asked: "Is it permissible to smoke while praying?" No, said the pope, prayer should be the focus of one's entire attention when so engaged.

The other priest phrased the question slightly differently: "Is it permissible to pray while smoking?" Yes, of course, said the pope, it is always appropriate to pray."

What are our Alternatives?

It seems to me that central to the terror of Technopoly that alarms Postman, and others who write along the same vein, is the loss of something from society, not simply the gain of technology. And that "something" which society loses is control, because it cannot keep up with and regulate all the technology which rises and falls around it. But do we have to take responsibility for that? For one thing, technology is not forced upon society by the engineer. Does the engineer insist on control and wrench belief from the hands of humanity? I don't think so.

More Humanities?

Florman stresses the value of having more humanities, especially literature, in an engineer's education, and argues that this would increase the appreciation of the professional for the non technical side of his or her work. Again there is nothing wrong with that, so far as it goes. In fact, there are engineering artists, musicians, poets, and dozens in this very community actively involved in administering, supporting and performing the arts. I dare say there are also dozens who read the great works of literature. One thing is for sure, there are more engineers reading great literature than there are literary scholars reading technological tomes.

Advising Society?

Florman does not really come close to the problem of Postman's Technopoly by simply advocating more humanities, as worthwhile as that may be. It might improve an engineer's education, and let him better appreciate art and literature, but it is not clear that it would materially affect the growth of a Technopoly. This has more to do with society taking a wrong turn, or setting the wrong goals.

But surely engineers do not have the responsibility, much less the right, to establish goals for society, and Florman (p72) agrees with that. Postman is even more definite on this point. He thinks that technologists are most inappropriate people to set society's goals (p88). But in the pursuit of goals which have been established by the entire community, says Florman, engineers should be dependable, and he goes on to say that they are dependable indeed. But this hardly gets to the heart of the matter, either.

Does society have goals?

Here is a clue to the real problem. When was the last time an entire community set a goal? This might happen in a time of calamity or threat, such as a war, or a government  objective such as the building of the St. Lawrence Sea way, or the putting of a man on the moon. It is also very unlikely that any government plan would meet with universal support. Certainly, if the St. Lawrence Sea way were to be proposed today, instead of 50 years ago, it would probably cost millions in environmental studies, and would have lots of opposition. In other words, there would likely have been a lot of dispute over the worthiness of the goal.

Most technological change occurs because of the drive or impetus of some individual or some company's problem (think of the Cornwall tin miners in 1750), or in the imagination of some entrepreneur - perhaps an engineer. Think of Marconi trying to get a signal across the Atlantic without a wire. No community set that goal, how could they, nobody, probably not even Marconi, knew what they were getting into. No one asked Rudolf Diesel to develop his engine, nor Thomas Edison for light bulbs, nor Edwin Land for Polaroid photography [9] (A technology now on the way to being replaced by digital imaging.) Progress would be a long time coming if we waited for the community to set and agree on goals.

Postman's Advice: Be a Loving Resistance Fighter. (Chap 11)

However grudgingly, admitting that he is "more armed with problems than solutions", Postman does accept that he should attempt something by way of a solution. His suggestion is that members of society become "loving resistance fighters". Now what does all that mean?

The "loving" part amounts to a plea, with rather a lot of American patriotism, not to abandon a society which has contributed much, just because it has become afflicted by Technopoly. In other words, don't throw out the baby with the bath water. To protect against Technopoly, he lists about a dozen things the "resistance fighter" must do, ending with "admire technological ingenuity, but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement." Surely, we have no quarrel with that. People are free to use their own rankings for human achievements. Again, in spite of himself, even in proposing solutions, he is telling people what they should not do, rather than what they should do: "technology must never be accepted as the natural order of things..."

But he does have a solution to propose, even though he does not appear to have much confidence in its acceptance by the public. The key component in Postman's solution is better education, and there are few who would find any fault with that in general. He criticizes the existing (American) system in that it is producing an output, he says, "which is a technocrat's ideal: a person with no commitment and no point of view, but with plenty of marketable skills." By the way, many humanists (and perhaps Postman, as well) now proceed to recommend changes to improve the system by removing the marketable skills!

His improved curriculum would especially include strong components in history and language. Everything should be taught as history, he says, and significantly, an essential subject would be the history of technology, "which as much as science and art, provides part of the story of humanity's confrontation with nature and indeed, with our own limitations." These are surely good objectives, but he admits he has little hope of persuading the nation's professional educators of the merit of his system.

Another Alternative

Thinkers like Postman and other humanists propose that one way to correct the system is to make the engineer more familiar with and aware of the fundamental (and perhaps unexpressed) needs of society. For example, Goodman (p8) writes "as a professional in a community of learned professionals, a technologist must have a different kind of training, and develop a different character from what we see at present among technicians and engineers." That may be ok as far as it goes. It is our professional responsibility to look at the down side of what we do, and avoid being one-eyed prophets.

As for those of us in the business of engineering education, the engineering profession insists that we make our educational system broad, and inclusive of more than just technical courses. It is worth noting that this is an accreditation requirement, and I think that if it were removed, the tendency would be to drop even the few courses we have outside the technical areas. But even if we did a lot more in this respect, (and we probably should) it is fairly clear that this alone could not solve the problem as defined by Postman. The way to demystify and remove the "sanctification of technique" is surely to have a better informed and technically alive society.

 As we have said earlier, the growth of a technopoly is a question of choice and acceptance of technology by the public. If the public is now making the wrong choices, or are being exploited by technology, a good way of tackling that problem would be for them to see more clearly what the dangers are, if any. Someone is paying for innovation, or it would not occur, by and large. It will hardly be sufficient to only make engineers more socially conscious.

This is, of course, why Postman writes a book like Technopoly; to try to persuade society not to surrender control to a system they do not understand. As in most problem solutions, the key is better understanding. It therefore follows that the general public should become better informed about technology. At least they would then be making informed choices.

Conclusion  Like Postman, to do that we would have to turn to educational philosophy and design. But of course the design of the nation's educational system takes us rather far beyond our course objectives. As I said at the start, we see the value of a broad education, and what is more, strive to get one. We nevertheless have to admit that many involved in professional engineering education are prepared, for what they think are good reasons, to sacrifice the potential breadth for more depth in rapidly developing technical fields. I may add that student pressure plays a part. As we know, students at this stage much prefer the technical, or "career oriented" courses, (as you perceive them) and we cannot really blame you. It is a well known situation in this business that undergraduate students wish courses were more specialized, 10 years after they graduate they wish they had been more general, and by 20 years they wish they had studied only philosophy. So I encourage you to take every opportunity to broaden your horizons, as early and as often as you can.

But for the general society, to whom Postman was addressing his message (for he never really blamed the engineer, unless it was for being a little one-eyed at times), it seems to me that it will always be in danger of being a victim of Technopoly unless they know more about technology, not less.

It is a hard world; society (including engineers) is responsible for its own defences.


1. Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage Books, 1993.

2. C. P. Snow, Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge University Press, 1959.

3. Paul Goodman. New Reformation. Random House, 1970. p8.

4. Samuel C. Florman. The Civilized Engineer. St. Martin's Press, 1988.

5. William Leiss. Under Technology's Thumb, 1989.

6. The Canadian Encyclopaedia Plus, Copyright 1996 by McClelland & Stewart Inc.

7.  Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority; an Experimental View.  Harper and Rowe, New York, 1974. The description in the notes comes from Postman and  from Introduction to Engineering Ethics, by Roland Schinzinger and Mike Martin, McGraw Hill, 1999.

8.  Steven P. Schnaars, Megamistakes, Forecasting and the Myth of Rapid Technological Change. The Free Press, 1989.

9. Myron Tribus, The Engineer and Public Policy Making, in Engineering and Professional Ethics, edited by James S. Schaub and Karl Pavlovic, with M. D. Morris, John Wiley and Sons, 1983. 

Last Modified - 11 March, 2003.  G R Peters