RESCUING PROMETHEUS by Thomas P. Hughes

RESCUING PROMETHEUS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The odd and elusive story of how large-scale technological projects of the post-WWII era have created new, postmodern methods of management and engineering. Size matters for Hughes (History and Sociology of Science/Univ. of Pennsylvania), the author of numerous works on the history of technology. Innovation is no longer the product of the lone inventor but of systems of technology combining disparate centers of funding, research, and production. What these systems require is management, the coordinating of their various parts. The genesis of such “systems management” lies in the Cold War, when the “military-industrial-university complex” made significant breakthroughs in computer and aerospace technology through work on air defense and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Convinced of the efficacy of this systems approach to managing all complexity, engineers turned their attention to managing civil problems such as urban decay, and, says Hughes, they failed miserably. Political interests and the checks and balances of government do not lend themselves easily to centralized planning and management. Yet systems management learned to incorporate and accommodate social demands for accountability and participation. Hughes examines in great detail how Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel Project overcame not only technical but also social challenges. Out of this experience and the creation of ARPANET, the military forerunner to the Internet, came a systems management wed not to the certainties of mathematical models but to the vagaries of contingency, to open-endedness, and to change. Hughes’s case-study approach demands the reader make his or her own connections; he spells out and summarizes very little. He is often ambiguous, condemning the “anti-science” bias of the ’60s but praising the role of the ’60s in bringing a new adaptability to systems management. He remains convinced, however, of the innate goodness of huge technological systems and only briefly engages views to the contrary. A complex book, but the attentive reader will be able to manage it. (b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Aug. 19th, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-41151-8
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1998