Engineering Risk and Disaster: Disaster-STS and the American History of Technology

TitleEngineering Risk and Disaster: Disaster-STS and the American History of Technology
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsKnowles, S
JournalEngineering Studies
Date Published2014/09/02
Publication Languageeng
ISBN Number1937-8629
AbstractFor a long time the historiographies of engineering and technology focused on technological intensification and progress across society, the economy, and government. Little specific attention was reserved in these narratives for risk, disaster, failure, and blame. However, more recently a vibrant, interdisciplinary synthesis of science and technology-focused disaster research has emerged in the form of a definable Disaster-STS, a subfield with close connections to engineering studies. This revisionist project inserts the contingencies of risk and the prevalence of disaster into the more traditional episodes of modern American technology history, such as urban industrialization and systems development, the rise of technical professions, postwar nuclear and other high-risk systems, and the history of postwar metropolitan growth. By expanding our view to include risk and disaster we explain the emergence of key engineering tools such as risk and cost-benefit analysis and we chart the rise and elaboration of previously obscured technical artifacts like standards, codes, and techniques of risk management fostered by engineers working in risky environments. We come to a fuller understanding of failure as a 'designed in' aspect of systems building. We note the push and pull of societal expectations of technological safety. Disasters have also created unique spaces of technical inquiry  post-disaster studies, investigations, and hearings which have also strongly influenced codes of ethics, liability calculations, engineering education, and professionalization more generally.