Evolution of Technology (TEC 154 2014S) : Readings

Petroski, Chapters 1-7


Petroski, Henry (1992). To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design. Vintage. Chapters 1-7.

Petroski says on page 5, "experience has proven that the risks of technology are very controllable." I am not sure if this is a correct statement. [Fair: I'm not sure that's a question.}

Petroski speaks of engineers' and architects' tendencies to avoid excessive use of material in order to save money in construction, but also needing the structure to maintain its structural integrity. (The Washington monument is a perfect example of this issue of excessive safety and then running out of funds.) But when you are designing a new technology, do you choose to err on the side of safety but possibly excessive materials--or do you choose a lower cost in hopes of being more efficient while still being effective? My guess is that the answer has much to do with what the technology's intended use is--and whether its failure would be potentially life threatening. [Fair: You've written those so it's more of a statement than a question. Could be improved by asking more about the criteria you use in making the decision.]

One of the points Petroski argues that humans skimp on technology to make larger profits. Why do we (humans) choose to purposefully fall short of our technological potential for the sake of industry? [Fair. The wording could be improved. "skimp" is a bit vague. And this seems to ignore who makes the decisions.}

Petroski also recognizes there can never be a "perfect" man-made technology. But isn't that where we're headed thanks to computer-guided machine line production? Or would Petroski argue that too is imperfect? [Fair. I'm not sure why you think computer-guided technology will be perfect. Explain your warrant in a bit more detail.]

Petroski brings up Phylogeny and ontogeny on page 14, getting at the thoughts of recapitulation theory. What impacts might this line of thinking have on technology as ever-evolving cultural artifacts - i.e. can it provide insight into the trajectory of our designs/where they are headed (in answer to Marx’s question “progress toward what?") [Mixed. Assumes that the audience knows about "recapitulation theory". But it's a thoughtful question.]

The story of his son and the slingshot poses an interesting question about why we design things. The technocrat vision seems to ignore the satisfaction humans get from building and improving something on their own. Can this DIY attitude be reclaimed in any technology we make everyday use of? [Very good. Asks us to question our initial analysis of the main purpose of technology.]

Is it fair to interpret engineering as an exaggerated version of a "tool"? Can we view engineering feats around the world as steps of the evolution of the human race? [Good]

In Chapter 2 (Falling Down is a Part of Growing Up), Petroski's words echo that of Florman's "tragic view." One example of a "technological fix" might be the mass dampers (such as one installed at Taipei 101) to help counteract the sway of the ever-growing skyscrapers. What others can you think of? [Good]

In terms of engineering and in general as well, is failing a necessary prerequisite of improvement and evolution? [Fair. Feels like an incomplete question. Needs a little bit more. For example, you could contextualize this with where in Petroski you get this notion of failure. You might add a followup question about instances in which we see the need for failure and instances in which we don't.]

"Breakdowns of man and machine can occur if they are called upon to carry more than they can bear". Do we tend to abuse the technology we use and expect more from it than it can do? [Fair. Again, feels incomplete. Needs a bit more detail, including the page number for the quote. Also a way too general question that would benefit from asking us to think about specific technologies.] Rewritten to "Breakdowns of man and machine can occur if they are called upon to carry more than they can bear" (p.16). Do we tend to abuse the technologies we use and expect more from them than they are capable of? More specifically, waht are some technologies we use that we might ask to "carry more than they can bear"?

In chapter 3, Petroski explains a process of improving technologies when they fail. He uses the example of the Speak and Spell. I would like to pose the question of whether or not manufacturers actually intend for a specific technology to fail in a certain amount of time in order to encourage consumers to purchase newer versions. Technologies that come to mind as possible culprits of this trend are computers, phones, and audio devices. [Mixed. Can we really answer what manufacturers intend? But a question about an intent for failure is a good approach.]

Do you think the analogy Petroski makes between technology and life is accurate? Can technology be looked at as a way of explaining and understanding life? Can life be looked at as a way of explaining and understanding technology? [Mixed. Really needs a direct quote, or at least a pointer to where in Petroski you're working from.]

It is evident that engineers are enlisted to improve technological innovations that are already well designed. Is re-engineering of technology an inevitable part of the cycle of technological innovation? [Mixed. I'd like to see you cite particular parts of Petroski. But it's a good question.]

Petroski illustrates that failure is a major part in the engineering process; however, the masses expect new designs to operate flawlessly... Does the public have right to be upset when receiving flawed or failing products? [Mixed. Again, I'd like to see you cite particular parts of Petroski. But it's a good question.]

What reasons do engineers have for designing products that will break after a certain amount of time passes? [Mixed. Should provide some context from Petroski.]

Petroski outlines the ways that we are introduced to the world of engineering at a young age. How has young people’s exposure to technological innovation and engineering changed over time? Would children during the age of stone tools experience the same exposure to engineering as modern day children? How have these differences impacted the rest of society? [Mixed. An interesting question. However, I'm not sure stone-age to modern is the best comparison. Maybe early 20th century to now. As importantly, is this a question we can really answer? Should also provide a bit more detailed context from Petroski so that we can consider exactly what he wrote.]

Petroski believes that mechanical failure is simply part of human nature. So, should we as inventors not be held accountable when there is structural or mechanical failure? Also, does this idea prevent engineers to seek technological perfection? In other words, does Petroski's idea on human nature and failure seem passive? [Mixed. It would help if you would give more precise citations to Petroski so we can see what ideas you are paraphrasing. And are you sure that mechanical failure is part of "human nature"? On the other hand, the question of how much we can blame engineers for the inevitable is a reasonable one.]

How can Petroski's analogies with human nature and structural failures relate to technological advancement as a whole? If failures do indeed help us for future structures, how can we analyze technological progress if failure is always the end result? [Mixed. As you suggest, even though we end up with failure, there is still "progress". Seems more rhetorical than anything.]

In defining the term engineering in chapter 4, Petroski claims that the most important objective in engineering is safety. He places this above economic and aesthetic aspects, suggesting that one life lost due to structure collapse essentially ruins the whole structure. Is this necessarily true? Petroski discusses how nothing can be expected to last forever, but to what extent do people recognize this? For example, can a beautiful building that lasted for well beyond its expected lifetime still be considered a success if it collapses and kills somebody at its end? [Mixed. It feels like this ties together a lot of different questions, many of which are quite interesting. It would probably be worth asking them separately, and a bit more carefully.]

Petroski illustrates the joy that his son felt when they had finally created a slingshot out of wood and rubber bands; opting out of buying a steel one from a catalogue. Is Petroski simply illustrating supporting the common saying, "The more you put into something, the more you get of it?" Or is this a suggestion about the joy/importance of being able to build and understand structures or objects that usually go unnoticed? [Mixed. I think Petroski is pretty clear in his opinion, but perhaps I'm wrong. And detailed citations are helpful.]

What is the difference between an architect and an engineer? They both involve designing aspects, but what separates the two? [Good. A bit basic, but clearly a useful thing to talk about. Pulling in a bit from Petroski (at least a quote) would be nice.]

Why does Petroski use so many metaphors in describing engineering? Is he making a point? What goal is he accomplishing? [Mixed. It would be much nicer to see direct quotes.]

In chapter 2, Petroski discusses the role of failure in technological development. In terms of engineering and in general as well, is failing a necessary prerequisite of improvement and evolution? In what instances of technology have we seen the need for failure in order to improve, and in what instances have we not?

Copyright (c) 2014 Samuel A. Rebelsky.

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