InReview – Issue 12

Thinking through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy by Carl Mitcham; Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994; xi, 397 pp.

Carl Mitcham recently moved from Penn State to the Colorado School of Mines where he is professor of the philosophy of technology. His work as an editor, organizer, and writer has been truly awesome in scope and quality over the past twenty years or so. Thinking Through Technology is quite simply the best introduction to the philosophy of technology, by the best contemporary practitioner in the field.

In Part One, “Historical Traditions in the Philosophy of Technology,” Mitcham first explores the engineering approach, then the humanities approach (or as we say at IBTE, the “Al approach” and the “David approach”), and then the multifaceted interaction of the two streams. In Part Two, “Analytical Issues in the Philosophy of Technology,” Mitcham reviews four general ways of looking at technology. The first is “technology as object,” understanding technology primarily as tools, artifacts, and machines.

“Technology as knowledge” emphasizes practical knowledge and applied science in distinction from pure theory or scientific research. “Technology as activity” stresses the making and using dimensions of technology. The fourth category, “technology as volition” is the least developed historically and the most abstractly philosophical perspective but deserves a place on the map because we often think of the “essence” of technology as a will to control or conquer, or a will to power.

Thinking Through Technology is very well-written and accessible despite the intimidating sound of “philosophy of technology.” Any technologist or business leader who carefully studies this book will be highly rewarded.

Reviewed by David W. Gill

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Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson; New York, G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1999; 96 pp.

Spencer Johnson, M.D. is an author and lecturer and may be best known as the co-author of The One Minute Manager® with Ken Blanchard.

Who Moved My Cheese has been at the top of the best seller lists for weeks. It is a fanciful story about two mice and two “little people” who live in a maze and go everyday to their favorite corner to eat cheese. One day the cheese supply is gone, and the mice immediately go in search of new cheese. The two “little people” don’t respond so quickly to the change, and deal with regrets, anger, and frustration over why the cheese is gone, why life is unfair, etc.

Their conversation about this change and principles they develop in working through their next steps provide the key advice for dealing with change in our own fast-paced world (all nicely summarized in graphic form). There is an animated movie, study guides for groups, and the like also available.

The book contains a solid idea that is useful for all of us living in a world that’s rapidly changing, driven in part by the information technology revolution. I struggle with the over simplification and lack of analysis about when to accept change or fight for things within your control that are worth keeping. I can’t imagine Bill Gates getting the results of the recent court case and concluding it was time to go in search of new cheese.

I also struggle with paying $20 US for a small book with large print and lots of pictures in 96 pages (including forward, title page, promotional comments, and advertising). This is in the quick-fix spirit of The One Minute Manager®, with a useful but simplistic idea summarized in a note card you can carry with you. If that’s what you are looking for, go for it.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? by David Brin; Reading, MA, Perseus Books, 1998; iv, 377 pp.

David Brin has a Ph.D. in space physics but left his career in research and academia to be a writer. His novels include The Postman, The Uplift War, Startide Rising, Earth, and Heaven’s Reach. The Transparent Society is a brilliant, challenging, frustrating book that I would recommend to everyone concerned with issues of privacy, freedom, encryption, regulation, and our electronic future.

Brin’s discussions of present and coming technologies of communication and surveillance are wide ranging and learned. He is not an evangelistic technophile dreamer (Kevin Kelley, Alvin Toffler, et al) but he is good at spinning out possible futures (e.g., miniature “wasps” that fly into your office, attach to the ceiling, and transmit photos to the outside as you key in your password and kiss your wife). He is good at exploring both sides of the encryption/hacking arms race.

Brin’s biggest contribution is his discussion of the deeper issues of privacy and freedom. He points out that traditional village and family life did not include the privacy many think it did. Furthermore, he asks, are we best protected in a world of secrecy and darkness-or in a world of transparency and light? Brin argues for the latter. Crooks, knaves, and demagogues thrive in the darkness; privacy will always work most to the advantage of rich and powerful business, government, and criminal elites. Better to force them, along with everyone else, into the light, than to lobby for darkness.

Brin rejects the anti-government paranoia of the privacy/anonymity/encryption crowd. Napoleon, Hitler, Lenin, Mao, and other tyrants came to power when government was too weak! We need balance and perspective. A great study.

Reviewed by David W. Gill