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David N. Livingstone


Machines and Us

It is 5:30 a.m. I am struggling to make it to the airport for a 7:00 a.m. flight to London. The first news program of the day accompanies my last-minute preparations. There is a special feature on a new plague that is threatening much of the fabric of Western life. It's not a medical problem, however; it's a computer menace: the Millennium Bug. Many of the computers on which our banking, insurance, health, and other vital institutions depend are not prepared to cope with New Year's Day 2000. They don't know how to shift the date beyond 1999; they were not programmed to deal with all those zeros, and if they can't, system failure of massive proportions will ensue. The hunt for a solution is on, and time is running out.

This bit of apocalyptic whimsy reminds me how pervasive is technology's presence in our world and--more to the point--that the particular bits of machinery that should soon keep me several miles aloft are not fail-safe. It reminds me too of colleagues who lost their lives on January 8, 1989, returning from the same conference I had attended when a British Midland jet came down near Kegworth on a flight from Heathrow to Belfast. The interface between people and machines, between the mortal and the mechanical, can be fun and frivolity; it can also be lethal and lamentable.

The essays that Donald MacKenzie has drawn together in his most recent book, Knowing Machines, are animated by a concern to take stock of the diverse ways in which human beings and machines interact with one another. These essays continue the project on the social construction of scientific knowledge with which MacKenzie has been engaged for some two decades. (His earlier work includes an influential sociological reading of British statistics, connecting its modern history with eugenics, and a study of accuracy in the nuclear-missile industry.) He has drawn inspiration from those like Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Harry Collins, Bruno Latour, Steven Shapin, and Steve Woolgar, who have pressed ...

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