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Matthew Wisnioski: Engineers for change

    Engineers for change: Competing visions of technology in 1960s America

In the late 1960s an eclectic group of engineers joined the antiwar and civil rights activists of the time in agitating for change. The engineers were fighting to remake their profession, challenging their fellow engineers to embrace a more humane vision of technology. In Engineers for Change, Matthew Wisnioski offers an account of this conflict within engineering, linking it to deep-seated assumptions about technology and American life. The postwar period in America saw a near-utopian belief in technology's beneficence. Beginning in the mid-1960s, however, society--influenced by the antitechnology writings of such thinkers as Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford--began to view technology in a more negative light. Engineers themselves were seen as conformist organization men propping up the military-industrial complex. A dissident minority of engineers offered critiques of their profession that appropriated concepts from technology's critics. These dissidents were criticized in turn by conservatives who regarded them as countercultural Luddites. And yet, as Wisnioski shows, the radical minority spurred the professional elite to promote a new understanding of technology as a rapidly accelerating force that our institutions are ill-equipped to handle. The negative consequences of technology spring from its very nature--and not from engineering's failures. “Sociotechnologists” were recruited to help society adjust to its technology. Wisnioski argues that in responding to the challenges posed by critics within their profession, engineers in the 1960s helped shape our dominant contemporary understanding of technological change as the driver of history.

"This important book examines the radical engineers of the 1960s and the dialogue they provoked, which changed the way the profession defined itself, with the unintended outcome that many American engineers embraced an ideology that normalized technological acceleration while diminishing responsibility for the cultural effects of their work. But as Matthew Wisnioski also shows, a critical minority now challenges the profession to embrace new values such as sustainability, social justice, and responsibility for change."
David E. Nye, author of Technology Matters: Questions to Live With

"For nearly a century, engineers have struggled with competing visions of their profession: were they masters or servants of technology? Debate boiled over during the turbulent 1960s, as critics bewailed destructive technologies that seemed out of control. Charting engineers' efforts from lathes and laboratories to artists' studios and the classroom, Matthew Wisnioski's Engineers for Change offers a richly textured, thought-provoking tour as engineers strove to remold their craft and their identity.
David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, MIT; author of How the Hippies Saved Physics

"The social and intellectual unrest of the 1960s forced engineers, long the masters of how, to confront why. The struggle to establish a socio-technical framework for engineering, university curricula to imbue it, and a popular understanding of it remain largely unmet today. Thus Matthew Wisnioski's very interesting and highly readable book is an important contemporary guide as well as excellent history."
Charles Vest, President, National Academy of Engineering; President Emeritus, MIT

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Matthew Wisnioski

    Matthew Wisnioski

Matthew Wisnioski works at the nexus of the history of science & technology, American cultural-intellectual history, engineering studies, and the values of design. He is writing a book Engineers for Change: Competing Visions of Technology in 1960s America that explores how the engineering profession in the United States was transformed in the Cold War era. He argues that in the process of responding to critics of technology, engineers shaped the normative visions that structure contemporary understandings of the human-built world. He has also written on the collaborative intersections of engineers and artists during the Cold War and is beginning a project on the emergence of design research methods in the postwar era. Matt received his bachelors degree in Materials Science & Engineering from The Johns Hopkins University in 2000 and his PhD in History from Princeton in 2005. He comes to Virginia Tech from a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry Program at Washington University in St. Louis. He teaches graduate seminars in Design Cultures, Normative Visions of Technology, Main Themes in the History of Science, and an Introduction to STS as well as undergraduate classes in the history of technology, material culture studies, and Engineering Cultures.

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