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Rosalind Williams

Rosalind Williams is Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology in MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society. She is the author of Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change (MIT Press, 2002).

Titles by This Author

An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination

With a new afterword by the author

The underground has always played a prominent role in human imaginings, both as a place of refuge and as a source of fear. The late nineteenth century saw a new fascination with the underground as Western societies tried to cope with the pervasive changes of a new social and technological order. In Notes on the Underground, Rosalind Williams takes us inside that critical historical moment, giving equal coverage to actual and imaginary undergrounds. She looks at the real-life invasions of the underground that occurred as modern urban infrastructures of sewers and subways were laid, and at the simultaneous archaeological excavations that were unearthing both human history and the planet’s deep past. She also examines the subterranean stories of Verne, Wells, Forster, Hugo, Bulwer-Lytton, and other writers who proposed alternative visions of the coming technological civilization.

Williams argues that these imagined and real underground environments provide models of human life in a world dominated by human presence and offer a prophetic look at today’s technology-dominated society. In a new afterword written for this edition, Williams points out that her book traces the emergence in the nineteenth century of what we would now call an environmental consciousness—an awareness that there will be consequences when humans live in a sealed, finite environment. Today we are more aware than ever of our limited biosphere and how vulnerable it is. Notes on the Underground, now even more than when it first appeared, offers a guide to the human, cultural, and technical consequences of what Williams calls "the human empire on earth."

A Historian Confronts Technological Change

When Warren Kendall Lewis left Spring Garden Farm in Delaware in 1901 to enter MIT, he had no idea that he was becoming part of a profession that would bring untold good to his country but would also contribute to the death of his family's farm. In this book written a century later, Professor Lewis's granddaughter, a cultural historian who has served in the administration of MIT, uses her grandfather’s and her own experience to make sense of the rapidly changing role of technology in contemporary life.

Rosalind Williams served as Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education at MIT from 1995 through 2000. From this vantage point, she watched a wave of changes, some planned and some unexpected, transform many aspects of social and working life—from how students are taught to how research and accounting are done—at this major site of technological innovation. In Retooling, she uses this local knowledge to draw more general insights into contemporary society's obsession with technology.

Today technology-driven change defines human desires, anxieties, memories, imagination, and experiences of time and space in unprecedented ways. But technology, and specifically information technology, does not simply influence culture and society; it is itself inherently cultural and social. If there is to be any reconciliation between technological change and community, Williams argues, it will come from connecting technological and social innovation—a connection demonstrated in the history that unfolds in this absorbing book.