Solving Problems but Only Reactively? Engineers, Laws, Corporations, and Technological Risk

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 3:30 PM
Central Park West (Sheraton New York)
Lee Vinsel, College of Arts and Letters, Stevens Institute of Technology
Since their professionalization in the late 19th century, engineers have seen themselves as agents and harbingers of progress. “Progress talk,” as the historian John Staudenmaier puts it, fills engineering journals, conference proceedings, and, today, online venues.  Yet, when the technologies they produce create hazards, engineers seem reactive rather than progressive. That is, engineers focus most urgently on the reduction of technological risks only when the threat of government regulation looms. This paper explores this seeming paradox: engineers’ reactivity in the midst of self-proclaimed progressivism.

The paper will use a number of stories drawn from the history of the automobile, from the 1930s to the 1970s, to illustrate examples of engineers’ relationships with technological risks. The paper will first use conference proceedings and other published sources as empirical evidence for the claim that engineers react to technological risks. Their work on reducing risk greatly increases around the passage of major regulatory legislations, as is evident in the published record. This claim, it should be noted, is supported by information that is digitized and searchable using tools that emerged only in recent years.  Second, the paper considers a number of explanations for the paradox, including the idea that engineers are culturally prone to playing up the positive aspects of technology and downplaying negative aspects.  The most powerful and convincing explanations suggest that corporate executives, rather than engineers, set technological prerogatives. Finally, the paper ends with a meditation on what these reflections entail about the relationship between technical communities, the law, and the ways that engineers understand themselves and the societies they seek to control.

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