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Thinking Through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy

Author: Carl Mitcham
Publisher: Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994
Review Published: August 2002

 REVIEW 1: Timothy Haupt

When I think about technology, I imagine rooms full of computers and dedicated people operating them with copious attention. When interacting with human beings, however, the mere presence of an automated system in the same room as a human being changes entire dynamics. Carl Mitcham's Thinking Through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy has changed my viewpoint on how to think about computers. Mitcham, the head of the Science, Technology and Society Program at Penn State, rightly insists that human interaction with automated systems is much more than mere return on investment.

In the first portion of book, he delineates the history of technological philosophy, the people who were involved, and what they were dealing with in terms of technology and its impact upon humanity. He also contrasts the Engineering Philosophy on Technology with the Humanities Philosophy on Technology. While the difference appears subtle on the surface, he creates a not-so-subtle method by which the two may be differentiated. In the second section of the book, he deals with technology from four different perspectives: Technology as Object; Technology as Knowledge; Technology as Activity; and Technology as Volition. Mitcham concludes by commenting on the subject of "being" with technology.

Section one, Historical Traditions in the Philosophy of Technology, begins with an interesting quotation: "'Mechanical philosophy' is a phrase of Newtonian provenance for that natural philosophy which uses the principles of mechanics to explain the world" (19). I find that a particularly telling quote as it sounds as if written by an engineer. With that beginning, Mitcham begins to paint a viewpoint that expresses an Engineering framework with respect to technology. In his discussion of historical figures, Mitcham spends a lot of time discussing Karl Marx. In Marx's opinion, "liberation of political economy from bourgeois class interests entails a new analysis of the production process" (81) by examining the instruments of labor and their conversion into machines. Marx' vision of technology was an all-encompassing technocracy where the social fabric would be re-sewn into one that would be more beneficial to the workers.

He does not merely state the condition within which technology has placed us, he also engages in a critique of the engineering philosophy, or lack thereof. Mitcham notes: "the philosophy of technology as currently cultivated is not a well-defined area of analysis" (94). His argument defines the distinction between technology and science by saying that science (the art of knowing) is easier to define philosophically than technology (the art of doing). After doing so, he emphasizes the need for a sound ethical framework. Specifically, he addresses nuclear ethics, environmental ethics, biomedical ethics, professional engineering ethics, and computer ethics. He concludes section one with the thought that technology is not some well thought out enterprise. Rather, it is through the haphazard trial and error process that technological progress is made. It is here that he attempts to "shake history loose from the debilitating pressures of progressive historicism" (134).

In section two, Analytical Issues in the Philosophy of Technology, he addresses issues facing the philosophy of technology. In it, he quotes Billy Vaughn Koen, who notes, "although we speak freely of technology, it is unlikely that we have the vaguest notion philosophically of what it is" (139). Rather than stating that technology is the root of civilization, as many scientists are wont to do, Mitcham argues "that the humanities are themselves the root of civilization" (143). With that statement, he has revealed his true bent within the framework of this text. He defines the engineer as being a master of ideas and planning rather than a skilled craftsman. Indeed, the engineer is primarily concerned with drawing plans and making directions that can be followed, whereas construction is left in the hands of the skilled laborers and artisans. He then defines technology as "that form of cultural activity devoted to the production or transformation of material objects or the creation of procedural systems in order to expand the realm of practical human possibility" (158). I find it interesting that he refuses to remove technology from its cultural context. He further asserts that science and technology are not, by nature, culturally neutral. He argues that technology is an extension of culture, and extends himself even further by stating that technology is also context-dependent with each type of technology containing and emerging from its own set of boundaries, rules, symbols, and language.

Within the remainder of the text, he continues to compare and work through the two basic viewpoints and concludes by contrasting Ancient skepticism with Enlightenment Optimism and Romantic Uneasiness. For time and space constraints, I would like to recommend this book for those who don't mind stretching the boundaries of their thinking into areas not previously discussed. For the technologist, a new etymology may emerge; for the philosopher, a new respect for the struggles involved with technology; and for the skeptic, a new found method by which he or she may measure the value that technology may or may not impart to society.

Carl Mitcham is by no means anti-technological. He is, admittedly, a humanist, but he is bounded by the realities that encompass our society. Being bounded by technology does not mean that our thinking has to remain limited within those boundaries. Human nature has, over the past few thousand years, never stayed in one place very long -- even when comfort abounds. Thinking Through Technology is an excellent starting point for those who want to understand more than just how computers and software work. If you want to understand more of how humankind struggles with the servants known as technology, I would recommend this text as an excellent starting point. Of course, anything by Albert Borgmann would be equally as enlightening, but that is another review.

Timothy Haupt:
Timothy Haupt is an instructor at Heald College and a graduate student at Alliant International University. His research interests include the dynamics of human interaction, diversity, and technology. 

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