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Hardcover | Out of Print | ISBN: 9780262133159 | 350 pp. | 6 x 9 in | January 1996
Paperback | $7.75 Short | £5.95 | ISBN: 9780262631884 | 350 pp. | 6 x 9 in | September 1998

Knowing Machines

Essays on Technical Change


Ranging from broad inquiries into the roles of economics and sociology in the explanation of technological change to an argument for the possibility of "uninventing" nuclear weapons, this selection of Donald MacKenzie's essays provides a solid introduction to the style and the substance of the sociology of technology.

The essays are tied together by their explorations of connections (primarily among technology, society, and knowledge) and by their general focus on modern "high" technology. They also share an emphasis on the complexity of technological formation and fixation and on the role of belief (especially self-validating belief) in technological change.

Two of the articles won major prizes on their original journal publication, and all but one date from 1991 or later. A substantial new introduction outlines the common themes underlying this body of work and places it in the context of recent debates in technology studies. Two conceptual essays are followed by seven empirical essays focusing on the laser gyroscopes that are central to modern aircraft navigation technology, supercomputers (with a particular emphasis on their use in the design of nuclear weapons), the application of mathematical proof in the design of computer systems, computer-related accidental deaths, and the nature of the knowledge that is needed to design a nuclear bomb.

About the Author

Donald MacKenzie is Professor of Sociology (Personal Chair) at the University of Edinburgh. His books include Inventing Accuracy (1990), Knowing Machines (1996), and Mechanizing Proof (2001), all published by the MIT Press. Portions of An Engine, not a Camera won the Viviana A. Zelizer Prize in economic sociology from the American Sociological Association.


“In this collection MacKenzie reveals his marvellous talent for taking the ideas belonging to the abstruse field of sociology of scientific and technological knowledge and revealing their enormous consequences for the wider world of politics. No-one but MacKenzie would have taken the idea of tacit knowledge and used it to show that we might one day forget how to make nuclear bombs. This superbly crafted research married to MacKenzie's calm pragmatism have led to a book that will become a standard reference for many aspects of the sociology of technology.”
Harry Collins, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise and Science at University of Southampton
“These essays are a remarkable achievement and a delight to read. Whilst many scholars have paid lip-service to interdisciplinary research, Donald MacKenzie has gone out and done it. He has restored the lost unity of the social sciences in a way which is comparable to the work of Marx and Mill in a previous century. He has blazed a trail which all of us should follow.”
Chris Freeman, Emeritus Professor of Science and Technology Policy, SPRU, University of Sussex
“Donald MacKenzie has distinguished himself among historians, sociologists, and engineers as an influential essayist. This volume demonstrates his mastery of the richly detailed historical narrative, penetratingly analyzed and given meaning by social concern.”
Thomas P. Hughes, Mellon Professor Emeritus, University of Pennsylvania, and Visiting Professor, MIT
“These are stunning essays. MacKenzie's history of supercomputers and inertial navigation systems shatters the economists' belief that technology developed along 'natural trajectories' in the past; his analysis of the importance of tacit knowledge in the development of complex technology, however, also challenges the political scientists' belief that nuclear weapons, once constructed, can never be 'uninvented' in the future.”
Scott D. Sagan, Stanford University
“The essays collected in Knowing Machines are enormously impressive: for the quality of the scholarship, for their wide range and for what they indicate about Donald MacKenzie's grasp of the demanding technical issues under discussion.”
Steven Yearley, Times Literary Supplement