TOPICS > Economy

Robert Pool and Beyond Engineering

February 13, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

DAVID GERGEN: Robert, most of the time when we talk about technology and society, it’s about the impact of technology on society, the invention of the printing press leading to the reformation, the invention of the compass leading to the age of exploration, but you’ve written and taken a very different kind of approach toward technology and society.

ROBERT POOL, Beyond Engineering: Exactly. I turn the question on its head, and instead of asking how technology pushes and shapes society, I asked how society changes technology, how society shapes technology.

The idea here is that normally when we think about technology, we assume that it’s the product of engineers sitting in their labs, working with calculators or slide rules or whatever, and coming up with some rational reasons for why a technology should be this way or that.

But if you look at it closely, what you find is that that’s not the case at all; that certainly engineers play a large role in shaping technology, but other forces from larger society also play a large role.

DAVID GERGEN: Yes. The typewriter, that’s a low-tech piece of equipment, obviously, but it was a fascinating example.

ROBERT POOL: Yes. This is something that most people don’t stop to think about, but the keyboard that we use on the typewriter right now, the QWERTY keyboard, is the product of the late 1800’s from an early typewriter design.

And the reason that the keys are laid out as they were is that at the time the technology was so primitive that if you typed too quickly, the keys would stick together, and so they decided to lay out the keys in a rather inefficient way so that you couldn’t type so quickly, and the typewriter would, in essence, work much better. But that inefficient layout got locked in to our system.

Once everybody had learned how to type on QWERTY and everybody was buying QWERTY typewriters, it became impossible to actually get a better typewriter even when a better typewriter came along. And such a typewriter does exist right now. It’s called a Dvorak keyboard and you can type anywhere from 10 to 40 percent faster on it, depending on who you believe. But there seems to be no way we can actually more QWERTY to Dvorak because it would just involve too great an effort.

DAVID GERGEN: I also found that the example about the automobile–the diesel engine versus a Stanley steamer–to be an interesting illustration of your point.

ROBERT POOL: Exactly. Most people driving around in their internal combustion engine cars today assume that the reason that we have internal combustion engines is because at some point engineers decided that was the best technology. But that’s actually not quite the case.

Back at the turn of the century we had actually three options. There were the internal combustion engine, the steam-powered cars, and the electric-powered cars. Now, the electric-powered cars had the same trouble then that they have now. Batteries just didn’t last long enough. So, in essence, they weren’t an option at the time. But the steam-powered car and the internal combustion car seemed to be pretty equally matched. T

hey each had some advantages and some disadvantages, but some people preferred the steam-powered cars, some people preferred the internal combustions. And there was no engineering consensus on what the best technology was. Instead, there were a number of factors that pushed the internal combustion out in front.

One of those was people like Henry Ford and Ransom Olds set up shop in Detroit, with their mass production of automobiles and made hundreds of thousands of these things so they could sell them very cheaply and flood the market; whereas, the people who are making the steam-powered cars, like the Stanley Brothers, were much more interested in making very high-end cars for the aficionados.

So they made custom cars actually. You could order your car custom-made from the factory, and so they made very few.

As a matter of fact, toward the beginning of the first world war the Stanley Brothers were making about as many cars in a year as Ford was turning out in a single day. That was part of the reason. But there were a number of other factors along the way, one of which was an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in New England.

And the reason that played a role is this–the steam-powered car was originally built with an open boiler so that the water would boil off and create steam. Well, that was not a problem in New England because there were all these public horse troughs around, so you drive for twenty or thirty miles, stop, and fill up your water tank at a horse trough.

But with this outbreak of hoof and mouth disease they closed the public horse troughs in New England, and all of a sudden you couldn’t drive wherever you wanted because you would run out of water for your steam engine.

DAVID GERGEN: Bye-bye Stanley Steamer. Let me ask you about the technology today. You say it is changed dramatically from the 19th century. We’re living in a new age–much more complex machines, and the engineering, which has much more of an impact on society. It’s changed society’s attitudes toward technology a lot.

ROBERT POOL: Exactly. There are a couple of things where technology is extremely different than it was a hundred years ago. One of them is a power of technology. A hundred years ago a technological accident might kill a few people at most.

Now, a technological accident in a nuclear power plant could conceivably kill thousands or even millions of people, so the power of technology is something that we’ve never experienced before. As I said in the book, it’s like having a Great Dane in the room. It may be friendly, but you’ve got to be very careful to put your breakables out of reach. Another major change in technology is the complexity.

A hundred years ago, two hundred years ago technology was a relatively simple thing. A single person could understand the entire workings of a steam engine or a telegraph. Today technology has gotten to the point where it’s so complex that no single person can understand the workings of something like a Boeing 747.

And with that complexity comes an uncertainty in how technology is going to behave. When you start to build something, you can never quite be sure how it’s going to act. You have to try it and see what happens, and even after five or 10 years with a particular machine, you can’t always be sure what’s going to happen. So that risk, coupled with the complexity, makes technology a very different sort of creature.

DAVID GERGEN: With the boom in the Internet and all the publicity that’s attended that, many argue we’re living through the greatest age of technological change in history. Is that true?

ROBERT POOL: I think it is. You can look back at the end of the 19th century where there was also an age of tremendous technological change with the things like the telephone and the telegraph before that–electricity–Thomas Edison and his lightbulb and so on.

And if you go back and look at the newspapers of the time, you see the people realized they were living in a golden age, so to speak, where things were changing much more rapidly than they had ever been before. What’s happened is over the last hundred years we’ve gotten used to that.

We’ve grown up in a society where technology is constantly changing and pushing our society in different directions, and so somehow we’ve become enured to that change, and it may not seem that we’re living in an age of so much change as the people were a hundred years ago, but, indeed, we’re moving actually much faster than we were then.

DAVID GERGEN: Final question. Are you an optimist about the future of technology in society?

ROBERT POOL: I am. And the reason is that there are people out there who are asking the right questions.

One of the questions is: How do we start thinking about designing technology with humans in mind? A hundred, 200 years ago when people designed machines, the designs came about through the needs of the machine. They asked, what is going to make the best machine, and then they let people worry about how they were going to run it.

That doesn’t work so well anymore. When you have something like a nuclear power plant, you can’t just say we’re going to make the best nuclear power plant we can and then figure out how to run it later.

It gets too complex; you can’t figure out exactly how it’s going to behave in certain situations, and so people have come to realize that we have to start thinking about technological design with humans and organizations in mind. And when we do that, it’s going to completely change how we think about technology and probably make technology a better servant of people.

DAVID GERGEN: Robert Pool, thank you for that final note in particular.