Designing and managing large technologies

What is involved in designing, implementing, coordinating, and managing the deployment of a large new technology system in a real social, political, and organizational environment? Here I am thinking of projects like the development of the SAGE early warning system, the Affordable Care Act, or the introduction of nuclear power into the civilian power industry.

Tom Hughes described several such projects in Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects That Changed the Modern World. Here is how he describes his focus in that book:

Telling the story of this ongoing creation since 1945 carries us into a human-built world far more complex than that populated earlier by heroic inventors such as Thomas Edison and by firms such as the Ford Motor Company. Post-World War II cultural history of technology and science introduces us to system builders and the military-industrial-university complex. Our focus will be on massive research and development projects rather than on the invention and development of individual machines, devices, and processes. In short, we shall be dealing with collective creative endeavors that have produced the communications, information, transportation, and defense systems that structure our world and shape the way we live our lives. (kl 76)

The emphasis here is on size, complexity, and multi-dimensionality. The projects that Hughes describes include the SAGE air defense system, the Atlas ICBM, Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel project, and the development of ARPANET. Here is an encapsulated description of the SAGE process:

The history of the SAGE Project contains a number of features that became commonplace in the development of large-scale technologies. Transdisciplinary committees, summer study groups, mission-oriented laboratories, government agencies, private corporations, and systems-engineering organizations were involved in the creation of SAGE. More than providing an example of system building from heterogeneous technical and organizational components, the project showed the world how a digital computer could function as a real-time information-processing center for a complex command and control system. SAGE demonstrated that computers could be more than arithmetic calculators, that they could function as automated control centers for industrial as well as military processes. (kl 285)

Mega-projects like these require coordinated efforts in multiple areas — technical and engineering challenges, business and financial issues, regulatory issues, and numerous other areas where innovation, discovery, and implementation are required. In order to be successful, the organization needs to make realistic judgments about questions for which there can be no certainty — the future development of technology, the needs and preferences of future businesses and consumers, and the pricing structure that will exist for the goods and services of the industry in the future. And because circumstances change over time, the process needs to be able to adapt to important new elements in the planning environment.

There are multiple dimensions of projects like these. There is the problem of establishing the fundamental specifications of the project — capacity, quality, functionality. There is the problem of coordinating the efforts of a very large team of geographically dispersed scientists and engineers, whose work is deployed across various parts of the problem. There is the problem of fitting the cost and scope of the project into the budgetary envelope that exists for it. And there is the problem of adapting to changing circumstances during the period of development and implementation — new technology choices, new economic circumstances, significant changes in demand or social need for the product, large shifts in the costs of inputs into the technology. Obstacles in any of these diverse areas can lead to impairment or failure of the project.

Most of the cases mentioned here involve engineering projects sponsored by the government or the military. And the complexities of these cases are instructive. But there are equally complex cases that are implemented in a private corporate environment — for example, the development of next-generation space vehicles by SpaceX. And the same issues of planning, coordination, and oversight arise in the private sector as well.

The most obvious thing to note in projects like these — and many other contemporary projects of similar scope — is that they require large teams of people with widely different areas of expertise and an ability to collaborate across disciplines. So a key part of leadership and management is to solve the problem of securing coordination around an overall plan across the numerous groups; updating plans in face of changing circumstances; and ensuring that the work products of the several groups are compatible with each other. Moreover, there is the perennial challenge of creating arrangements and incentives in the work environment — laboratory, design office, budget division, logistics planning — that stimulate the participants to high-level creativity and achievement.

This topic is of interest for practical reasons — as a society we need to be confident in the effectiveness and responsiveness of the planning and development that goes into large projects like these. But it is also of interest for a deeper reason: the challenge of attributing rational planning and action to a very large and distributed organization at all. When an individual scientist or engineer leads a laboratory focused on a particular set of research problems, it is possible for that individual (with assistance from the program and lab managers hired for the effort) to keep the important scientific and logistical details in mind. It is an individual effort. But the projects described here are sufficiently complex that there is no individual leader who has the whole plan in mind. Instead, the “organizational intentionality” is embodied in the working committees, communications processes, and assessment mechanisms that have been established.

It is interesting to consider how students, both undergraduate and graduate, can come to have a better appreciation of the organizational challenges raised by large projects like these. Almost by definition, study of these problem areas in a traditional university curriculum proceeds from the point of view of a specialized discipline — accounting, electrical engineering, environmental policy. But the view provided from a discipline is insufficient to give the student a rich understanding of the complexity of the real-world problems associated with projects like these. It is tempting to think that advanced courses for engineering and management students could be devised making extensive use of detailed case studies as well as simulation tools that would allow students to gain a more adequate understanding of what is needed to organize and implement a large new system. And interestingly enough, this is a place where the skills of humanists and social scientists are perhaps even more essential than the expertise of technology and management specialists. Historians and sociologists have a great deal to add to a student’s understanding of these complex, messy processes.

Information technology and new human capabilities

For a billion or so of us on planet earth, we are immersed in a sea of ever-changing technology. How does technology shape us? And how do we shape technology? How do current technologies change our capacities as human beings? In what ways are we better able to fulfill our plans of life using the technologies available to us?

It goes without saying that a wealth of existing technology systems are the foundation of our current life circumstances. Electricity, commercial agriculture, large-scale logistics systems, water purification, long-distance transportation, and advanced manufacturing are critical for the lives of two-thirds of planet earth’s population. And if we try to imagine what life would be like without these systems we have to go back to the lived environment of roughly 1400 in the West and perhaps 1000 in East Asia. Small population, short longevity, high maternal and infant mortality, frequent epidemic disease, grueling daily labor, and limited literacy are the baseline created by traditional agriculture and handicraft manufacture. If this is the point of comparison, then it’s hard to deny that technology has improved human wellbeing. 

But let’s look more closely at the most recent tech revolution that we are currently experiencing, the digital information revolution. Here I’m thinking of the World Wide Web, ubiquitous web access, cheap computing power, email, jumbo databases, social media tools, and cheap global voice and video communication.

How did this new suite of technologies suddenly sweep over us? The technical side of the history is pretty well understood. The PC revolution was basically a straightforward commercialization and incremental development of computer technologies of the 1950s and 1960s. The big challenges were miniaturization and improvement of the human interface — in other words, innovations that would permit creation of a mass market for the new devices. The personal software industry deserves its own separate mention. Of course software needed personalization — CPM, ElectricPencil, WordPerfect, MSDOS, Windows, Macintosh operating system. There were early innovators, and often enough those companies failed quickly. And there were a few large companies that eventually dominated. Second, the development of the first point-to-point networks permitting communication between sites was a substantial and genuine innovation. This technology would unfold into a full gauge “world-wide web” in only 15 years or so. Third, search technologies were crucial for accessing and using the millions of pages of information accessible on the web. Search tools, including especially Google, suddenly made organizing and finding information quickly a very easy, non-technical process. And a few companies jumped into the lead. The most recent wave of innovation has taken advantage of the web itself — social networking, search, gaming, and e-commerce — to attract users who will interact digitally through photos, video, and messaging. 

It would be foolish to imagine that this technology is fundamentally different from any earlier stage of technology in its path-dependence on specific interests in society. So what were the interests that drove these developments? 

Some of these shaping interests were directly related to the needs of the military. Command and control of bomber and ICBM detection systems required real time communications networks on a national scale. DARPANET was one of the early developments of these interests. Another obvious set of interests were commercial. The emerging PC technology created opportunities for large commercial success, for the entrepreneur who captured the moment. Companies like Exidy, Commodore, and Radio Shack made their efforts. But for a couple of fairly contingent reasons IBM and Apple were the big winners. And, of course, the emergence of a mass market of consumers who would be interested in buying and using these devices was critical. It is hard to imagine personal computing developing as a major industry in the former German Democratic Republic.

So it is plain that the suite of technologies that brought us the information revolution were strongly affected by governmental and commercial interests. It is also indisputable that no one could have predicted the ways these technologies would develop and interact from the starting point of 1980. 

How we got here is one large question. But even more important is how this ensemble of technologies has changed us.

The positives are enormous. There is basically no limit on the range of knowledge and learning that is possible through the web. So the information revolution has offered a huge amplifier for knowledge acquisition for all of us. The fact of easily accessible information and analysis is an enhancement of our ability to understand the world. 

Global communication technology is a second huge enhancement for our ability to interact with people all over the world. Scholars can collaborate in real time thanks to Skype video conferencing. Activists can interact through the same technology. Religious communities can communicate, share ideas, and disagree with each other, from Nigeria to Sao Paolo to Los Angeles. 

Social networks add a third new capacity — to create new connections with people with similar concerns and interests with whom productive interaction is possible. Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress create micro-digital neighborhoods in which people can form surprisingly natural connections. A philosopher in Michigan becomes acquainted with a journalist in Bangkok, a mathematician in Athens, a sociology graduate in the Philippines, and a philosopher with very similar interests in Taiwan — these are intellectual relationships that could not have occurred in a pre-web world. 

So the digital revolution certainly extends human capacity and reach. But there is a negative side too. Some observers fear that the digital generation is substituting Facebook for face-to-face relationships. Skeptics argue that the so-called twitter revolutions in the Middle East can’t depend on the weak bonds created by a Facebook page, and that real solidarity must proceed from more direct connections. There is real concern that hate groups can amplify their ability to mobilize through the web. Addiction to World of Warcraft and other online gaming communities seems like a real phenomenon for a significant number of people. And maybe short-form thinking (blog entries, Facebook updates, tweets) is insidiously undermining our ability to think long, coherent thoughts. So it is hard to say whether the Internet is on balance a force for extending human capabilities and social wellbeing.

The real impact of the digital revolution on the nature of human social life probably can’t yet be assessed. Manuel Castells is trying to begin this process with his multi-volume The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture Volume I (Information Age Series) on the Information Age. Yevgeny Morozov offers doubts about the supposedly progressive nature of the Internet in The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. And Sherry Turkle is exploring the personal and subjective effects of new technologies on all of us in books like Alone Together:Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other and Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. But realistically, we are only at the beginning of understanding the social and personal consequences of the new information and network tools that are now ubiquitous.

Technology change

The past century has witnessed an amazing amount of technology change, and the pace seems to be quickening. How does a technology develop, and how do social conditions and institutions interact with this process?

These aren’t new questions, of course. There is a well developed field of the history of technology, with its own research traditions and assumptions (see the journal Technology and Culture, for example). There is a related field of research called “social construction of technology” (SCOT), which looks particularly intently at the second of these questions. (Here is a nicepage by Robert Keel describing the central ideas of SCOT, through a consideration of Wiebe Bijker’s important work. Bruno Latour’s thinking falls into this category as well, including his “Actor-Network Theory”; link.) And there is even a field called the philosophy of technology, with Heidegger at one end and Carl Mitcham at the other. (Here is a nice article on philosophy of technology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) So lots of smart people are thinking about these questions. 

But some of the big questions don’t really require specialist knowledge to gain real insight through careful reflection. After all, we have our own phenomenological experiences — especially useful during the thirty years in which information and communication technologies have exploded in impact and reach. And in this area there are also some useful insights from Karl Marx’s view of history as well.

We could begin by postulating that technology is …

the extension of human capacities through the application of scientific knowledge in the design and creation of material artifacts.

Bicycles extended the range and speed of human-powered transportation. Electric lights extended the ability of people to engage in work and leisure after natural light waned. Armored motorized vehicles extended the ability of states to wage war over large territories. Steel plows extended the ability of immigrant farmers to break the sod of the grasslands of the middle west.

But how do these developments in material culture come about?

The most basic thing we can say is that human beings have material needs, and they are compelled to use tools and artifacts to transform materials provided by nature to satisfy needs. The ensemble of tools, artifacts, practices, and technical knowledge available to a population at a time is its technology. Moreover, human beings are innovative problem solvers. So they are capable of inventing and designing new tools and techniques. This capacity is a primary source of technology change. This is the heart of Marx’s insight in The German Ideology.

But technologies are also levers for power and wealth. Control over a technology — or strong influence over the way in which the technology is developed — can be a great source of power and wealth for specific groups. And so we need to look closely at the ways in which new technologies are being shaped in ways that serve specific social interests. This is much of what Marx was getting at when he focused on the forces and relations of production as being central to the historical development of a society.

Modern technologies generally require complex human systems in order for them to be broadly implemented. Thomas Hughes documents these complex systems in the case of electric power in Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930. Research institutions, engineering firms, municipal governments, and power companies combine to develop and establish the power generation and distribution that basic advances in the understanding of electricity made possible. These institutions aren’t guided by a benign optimizing intelligence that produces the optimal implementation for aiding human wellbeing. Rather, they are propelled by private interests, profitability, political competition, and government action. The market plays a role, the demands of the consuming public come in, and the political interests of decision makers and policy mavens are key as well. Technology doesn’t direct its own path of development, and neither do the abstract best interests of humanity. (Does the growth of a slime mold colony fit the situation — locally smart, globally stupid?)

Finally, detailed study of specific technologies — railroads, steel, chemicals, genetic informatics — demonstrates a very high degree of contingency in the sequencing of solutions to technical and organizational problems as the technology develops. And these contingencies have significant influence on the outcomes. So technology change is an instance of a path-dependent process. 

All of this suggests several important keys for studying the history of various technologies. First, don’t make the functionalist assumption that a technology will ultimately develop in a way that is most beneficial to human wellbeing. History is replete with great technical innovations that either quietly disappeared before they could benefit anyone, or were co-opted in ways that primarily benefited elites and power-holders. (The labor-saving water wheel in ancient Rome is a good example.) Second, look for the concrete interests that are at work as the institutional basis and technical solutions for a given technology are chosen. Hughes’s discussion of electric power is fundamental. And third, always understand that technology change is a process that demonstrates great contingency and path dependency. So expecting to anticipate the outcome in advance is highly questionable.

These observations have some relevance to the question of trying to understand the technological revolution we are currently experiencing, the information revolution. This will be the topic of an upcoming post.

Transmitting technology

How do large technological advances cross cultural and civilizational boundaries? The puzzle is this: large technologies are not simply cool new devices, but rather complex systems of scientific knowledge, engineering traditions, production processes, and modes of technical communication. So transfer of technology is not simply a matter of conveying the approximate specifications of the device; it requires the creation of a research and development infrastructure that is largely analogous to the original process of invention and development. Inventors, scientists, universities, research centers, and skilled workers need to build a local understanding of the way the technology works and how to solve the difficult problems of material and technical implementation.

Take inertial guidance systems for missiles, described in fascinating detail by Donald MacKenzie in Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance. The process MacKenzie describes of discovery and development of inertial guidance was a highly complex and secretive one, with multiple areas of scientific and engineering research solving a series of difficult technical problems.

Now do a bit of counterfactual history and imagine that some country — say, Burma — had developed powerful rocket engines in the 1950s but did not have a workable guidance technology; and suppose the US and USSR had succeeded in keeping the development of inertial navigation systems and the underlying science secret. Finally, suppose that Burmese agents had managed to gain a superficial description of inertial navigation: “It is a self-contained device that tracks acceleration and therefore permits constant updating of current location; and it uses ultra-high precision gyroscopes.” Would this be enough of a leak to permit rapid adoption of inertial navigation in the Burmese missile program? Probably not; the technical obstacles faced in the original development process would have to be solved again, and this means a long process of knowledge building and institution building.  For example, MacKenzie describes the knotty problem posed to this technology by the fact of slight variations in the earth’s gravitational field over the surface of the globe; if uncorrected, these variations would be coded as acceleration by the instrument and would lead to significant navigational errors.  The solution to this problem involved creating a detailed mapping of the earth’s gravitational field.

This is a hypothetical case. But Hsien-Chun Wang describes an equally fascinating but real case in a recent article in Technology and Culture, “Discovering Steam Power in China, 1840s-1860s” (link). There was essentially no knowledge of steam power in Chinese science in the mid-Qing (early nineteenth century). The First Opium War (1839-1842) provided a rude announcement of the technology, in the form of powerful steam-driven warships on the coast and rivers of eastern China. Chinese officials and military officers recognized the threat represented by Western military-industrial technology, but it was another 25 years before Chinese industry was in a position to build a steam-powered ship. So what were the obstacles standing in front of China’s steam revolution?

Wang focuses on two key obstacles in mid-Qing industry and technology: the role of technical drawings as a medium for transmitting specifications for complex machines from designer to skilled workers; and the absence in nineteenth-century China of a machine tool technology.  Technical drawings were an essential medium of communication in the European industrial system, conveying precise specifications of parts and machines to the workers and tools who would fabricate them.  And machine tools (lathes, planes, stamping machines, cutting machines, etc.) provided the tools necessary to fabricate high-precision metal parts and components.  (Merritt Roe Smith describes aspects of both these stories in his account of the U.S. arms industry in the early nineteenth century; Harpers Ferry Armory and New Technology.)  According to Wang, the Chinese technical culture had developed models rather than drawings to convey how a machine works; and the intricate small machines that certainly were a part of Chinese technical culture depended on artisanal skill rather than precision tooling of interchangeable parts.

So communicating the technical details of a complex machine and creating the fabrication infrastructure needed to produce the machine were two important obstacles for rapid transfer of steam technology from Western Europe to Qing China.  But perhaps a more fundamental obstacle emerges as well: the fact that Chinese technical and scientific culture was as yet simply unready to “see” the way that steam power worked in the first place.  When steam warships arrived, acute Chinese observers saw smoke and fire, and they saw motion.  But they did not see “steam-driven traction”, or the translation of kinetic energy into rotational work.  (This is evident also in the drawing of the treadmill water pump above; the maker of the drawing clearly did not perceive from the Italian drawing how the motion of the treadmill was translated into the vertical pumping action.)  Wang quotes a description from an observer in Guangzhou in 1828:

Early in the third month … there suddenly came from Bengal a huo lunchuan [fire-wheel ship] …. The huo lunchuan has an empty copper cylinder inside to burn coal, with a machine on the top.  When the flame is up, the machine moves automatically.  The wheels on both sides of the ship move automatically too. (37)

And another observer wrote in Zhejiang in 1840:

The ship’s cabin stores a square furnace under the beam from which the wheels are hung.  When the fire is burning in the furnace, the two wheels turn like a fast mill and the ship cruises as fast as if it is flying, regardless of the wind’s direction. (37-38)

The give-away here is the word “automatically”; plainly these observers had not assimilated a causal process linking the production of heat (fire) to mechanical motion (the rotation of the paddle wheels).  Instead, the two circumstances are described as parallel rather than causal.

So the fundamental motive force of steam was not cognitively accessible at this point, even through direct observation.  By contrast, the marine utility of paddlewheel-driven warships was quickly assimilated. Chinese commanders adapted what they observed in the European naval forces (powerful paddlewheels that made sails unnecessary) to an existing technology (human- or ox-driven paddlewheels), and large “wheel-boats” saw action as early as 1842 on Suzhou Creek (40).

Wang notes that several Chinese inventors did in fact succeed in discerning the mechanism associated with steam power by the 1840s. Ding Gongchen succeeded in fabricating a model steam rail engine 61 centimeters long and a 134-centimeter model paddlewheel steamboat; so he clearly understood the basic mechanism at this point.  And Zheng Fuguang appears to have mastered the basic concept as well.  But here is Wang’s summary:

Ding’s efforts show that despite the circulating writings of a few experimenters, the steam engine remained a novelty, which was difficult to understand and probably impossible to reproduce.  Interested parties were discussing it, however, but attempted to grasp it in terms of their indigenous expertise alone rather than more broadly understanding the new Western technology. (45)

In 1861, during the Taiping Rebellion, a senior military commander Zeng Guofan created an arsenal in Anqing for ammunition, and also set about to create the capacity to build steam-powered ships.  With the assistance of experts Xu Shou and Hua Hengfang, the arsenal produced a partially successful full-scale steamship by 1863, and in 1864 Hua and Xu succeeded in completing a 25-ton steamship, the Huanghu, that was capable of generating 11.5 kilometers per hour.  The Chinese-build steamship had arrived.

Here is how Wang summarizes this history of technology adaptation over a 25-year period of time:

The path from the treadmill paddlewheel boat to the Jiangnan arsenal’s steamers was a long journey of discovery. Qing officials experimented with the knowledge and skills available to them, and it took time–and trial and error–for them to realize that steamboats were driven by steam, that machine tools were necessary to turn the principle of steam into a workable engine, and that drawings had to be made and read for the technology to be diffused. (53)

So perhaps the short answer to the question posed above about cross-civilizational technology transfer is this: “transfer” looks a lot more like “reinvention” than it does “imitation.”  It was necessary for Chinese experimenters, officials, and military officers to create a new set of institutions and technical capacities before this apparently simple new technological idea could find its way into Chinese implementations on a large scale.

(The image at the top is one of the most interesting parts of Wang’s very interesting paper; it establishes vividly the difficulty of transmitting technologies across different technical cultures.  The Italian drawing dates from 1607, and the Chinese copy dates from 1627.  As Wang points out, the Chinese version of the drawing is visually highly similar to the Italian original; it is a good copy.  And yet it fails to designate any of the technical features of how this treadmill-operated water pump works.  The pair of drawings are fascinating to examine in detail.)

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