Social and Political Implications of Technology

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Course Description

This course is a graduate reading seminar, in which historical and contemporary studies are used to explore the interaction of technology with social and political values. Emphasis is on how technological devices, structures, and systems influence the organization of society and the behavior of its members. Examples are drawn from the technologies of war, transportation, communication, production, and reproduction.


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Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


This reading seminar centers on how new technologies have altered the shape and structure of society, politics, and business since the late 18th century. Historical case studies will be used to reflect upon the anticipated and unanticipated consequences of new technologies and, by extension through analogy, to consider whether these cases hold any lessons for contemporary designers, developers, and planners. The seminar will follow a discussion format, with some preliminary remarks by Professors Smith and Mindell at the beginning of each session.

Textbooks and Readings

A primary book used throughout this course is:

  • Smith, Merritt Roe, and Gregory Clancey, eds. Major Problems in the History of American Technology. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997. ISBN: 9780669354720.

Other readings are assigned from a variety of books and articles.


Members of the seminar are expected to complete the assigned readings and prepare a one- to two-page reflection paper each week.

Additionally, each student must produce a final paper of 10 to 12 pages in length, which relates the readings and class discussions to one's particular areas of research and/or policy interest.


The final grade will be determined by the quality of the reflection papers, the quality of one's interventions in the class discussions, and by the final paper.


Assigned Readings


  • Introduction
  • Discussion of Leo Marx's paper. "Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept."
  • Smith and Clancey. pp. xiii-xv and 1-25.


  • Mumford. Technics and Civilization. pp. 3-106.
  • Mumford Article
  • Lapartito. "Historian in the Rose Garden."


  • E. P. Thompson Article
  • Gutman Article
  • Smith and Clancey. pp. 144-190.


  • Cronon. Nature's Metropolis. (Complete)
  • Smith and Clancey. pp. 191-233.


  • Reading period (class does not meet)


  • Aitken. Taylorism. (Complete)
  • Smith and Clancey. pp. 267-354.


  • Fritzsche. Nation of Fliers. (Complete)


  • Nye. Electrifying America. (Complete)
  • Smith and Clancey. pp. 233-66 and 355-82.


  • Cowan Articles
  • McGaw Article
  • Lapartito. "When Women Were Switches."


  • Russell. War and Nature. (Complete)
  • Smith and Clancey, pp. 383-426.


  • Reading period (class does not meet)


  • MacKenzie. Inventing Accuracy. (Complete)
  • Smith and Clancey. pp. 427-70.


  • Reading period (class does not meet)


  • Maines. Asbestos and Fire. (Complete)



  • Smith, Merritt Roe, and Gregory Clancey, eds. Major Problems in the History of American Technology. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997. ISBN: 9780669354720.
  • Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1963. ISBN: 9780156882545.
  • Cronon, W. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West . New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992. ISBN: 9780393308730.
  • Aitken, H. G. J. Scientific Management in Action: Taylorism at the Watertown Arsenal, 1908-1915. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985. ISBN: 9780691042411.
  • Fritzsche, Peter. A Nation of Fliers: German Aviation and the Popular Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. ISBN: 9780674601222.
  • Nye, David. Electrifying America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992. ISBN: 9780262640305.
  • Russell, Edmund. War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN: 9780521799379.
  • MacKenzie, Donald. Inventing Accuracy: An Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993. ISBN: 9780262631471.
  • Maines, Rachel. Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780813535753.

Articles and Book Chapters

  • Marx, Leo. "Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept." Social Research 64, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 965-88.
  • Mumford, Lewis. "Authoritarian and Democratic Technics." Technology and Culture 5 (Winter 1964): 1-8.
  • Lipartito, Kenneth. "The Historian in the Rose Garden." Technology and Culture 41 (July 2000): 537-48.
  • ———. "When Women Were Switches: Technology, Work, and Gender in the Telephone Industry, 1890-1920." American Historical Review 99 (October 1994): 1074-1111.

Thompson, Edward P. "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism." Past and Present 38 (1967): 56-97. [Also reprinted in Thompson's book, Customs in Common (1992).]

  • Gutman, Herbert. "Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, 1815-1919." American Historical Review 78, no. 3 (June 1973): 531-88. [Also reprinted in Gutman's book, Work, Culture, and Society (1976).]
  • Cowan, Ruth S. "The 'Industrial Revolution' in the Home: Household Technology and Social Change in the 20th century." Technology and Culture 17, no. 1 (January 1976): 1-24.
  • ———. "The Consumption Junction." In The Social Construction of Technological Systems. Edited by Wiebe Bijker, Thomas Hughes, and Trevor Pinch. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987. ISBN: 9780262022620.
  • McGaw, Judith A. "No Passive Victims, No Separate Spheres: A Feminist Perspective on Technology's History." In In Context: History and the History of Technology. Edited by Stephen H. Cutcliffe and Robert C. Post. Cranbury, NJ: Lehigh University Press, 1989. ISBN: 9780934223034.
  • Noble, David F. "Social Choice in Machine Design." In Case Studies on the Labor Process. Edited by Andrew Zimbalist. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1981. ISBN: 9780853455196.


Reflection Papers

On each week's assigned readings, students prepare a one- to two-page reflection paper. These papers are to be forwarded to Professors Smith and Mindell and the other members of the class at least 24 hours before the seminar meets.

Student Work

The following table presents examples of reflection papers, courtesy of the student named and used with permission.


  • Cronon, William. Nature's Metropolis.
  • Kieran Downes (PDF)
  • Michael Rossi (PDF)
  • Rachel Wellhausen (PDF)
  • Aitken, Hugh. Taylorism at the Watertown Arsenal.
  • Kieran Downes (PDF)
  • David Unger (PDF)
  • MacKenzie, Donald. Inventing Accuracy.
  • Kieran Downes (PDF)
  • Yanni Loukissas (PDF)

Final Paper

Each student must produce a final paper of 10 to 12 pages in length, which relate the readings and class discussions to one's particular areas of research and/or policy interest.

Course Listing

STS.462 Social and Political Implications of Technology


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