7. How Do We Change Technology?

Build a better mousetrap and the world
will beat a path to your door.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The poet Emerson fell for the myth Thomas Edison created. A shrewd promoter, Edison advertised his phonograph, light bulb, and other inventions as fruits of a tireless, lone inventor, but in the laboratory he had a team of specialists looking for market opportunities and then cooperating to address them. And outside of the laboratory, he had investors, distributors, and media contacts. Far from waiting for the world to beat a path to his laboratory door, he promoted inventions before they were even ready.

On September 15, 1878, Edison confidently told reporters that he had invented the light bulb and all that remained was to work out a few details. He predicted that, within six weeks, gaslight would be obsolete. This report drove down the stock of the gas companies and drove up investment in his company. Although those few details took more than two years to work out, he created another media event on New Year’s Eve, 1880, when people traveled from miles around to his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, to see the first enduring light bulbs (he and others before him had made many bulbs that quickly burned out).

Edison was even more creative when alternating current (AC) from rivals Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla threatened his direct current system (DC). By publicly electrocuting dogs and cats with AC, he tried to sway opinion on its safety. Hardly the lone inventor waiting at home.

Why does the myth persist? Because we like simplicity. Just as grand military exploits involving millions of people are credited to individual such as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, grand technological inventions are credited to individuals such as James Watt and Thomas Edison. It is easy to imagine one person responsible for one achievement, and marketing and sales people fuel this view because the last thing they want associated with their products is complexity—that could confuse the consumer. Unfortunately, the myth of the lone inventor keeps us ignorant of the variety of roles we can play in the birth and life of technology.

Consider some of the roles played in developing one of the first personal computers. Steve Wozniak, a clever electronic circuit designer and hobbyist, engineered the first Apple computer. Steve Jobs promoted it, convincing Mike Markkula to invest in it so they could produce it on a mass scale. Jobs also convinced John Sculley to leave the top post at Pepsi to manage Apple (famously asking him, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?”).

Some claimed that IBM’s less elegant PC overtook Apple simply because the force of the world’s largest computer company made it successful. But there was more to the PC’s triumph than that. IBM made public the technical specifications for the PC’s interfaces, inviting other companies to develop peripherals, hardware upgrades, and software. That involved many parties doing many different things to change the technology.

In the last chapter, we saw how dramatically technology changes us, so it seems only fair that we would have influence over it, too. In this chapter we share stories of how people have changed technology by engineering, governing, promoting, managing, investing, and questioning. To unify the stories, we follow the development of nuclear technology.

In some way or the other,
each one of us affects the course of history…
a self-educated Scottish mechanic once made
a minor adjustment to a steam pump

and triggered the whole Industrial Revolution

James Burke


Most trace nuclear power to the 20th century. We trace it through a self-educated Scottish mechanic in the 18th century all the way back to a Greek in the 1st century to show the engineering process to create ever more useful technology. As a guide, we use a simplified model of a nuclear power plant, separated into three stages:

While step one, the nuclear heat source, is a 20th century invention, step three dates back at least to 1867, when Zénobe Théophile Gramme invented the first practical dynamo. Well before that, Richard Trevithick invented the first high-pressure version of step two, embodied in his 1803 steam railway locomotive. And years earlier, James Watt, the self-educated Scottish mechanic referred to in Burke’s quote, patented the steam engine (1769) and actually got it working (1774). Watt refused to use high pressure and, so, his steam engine was a huge, inefficient, stationary machine, useful only in places such as factories.

Watt’s steam engine was not the first to perform work with expanding water. He simply improved on Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine design, which was on display at the museum in which Watt worked. The adjustment Watt made meant that the engine needed much less coal to do the same amount of work. Still, Newcomen’s had been efficient enough to be commercially successful. It pumped water out of flooded mines as early as 1712.

But Newcomen did not invent the steam engine either. He improved on a 1698 steam pump by Thomas Savery, whose barely practical pump also drained flooded mines. And that was a step up from Denis Papin’s 1690 concept for moving a piston with steam. Papin’s principle was used in all the steam engines (and nuclear power plants) to follow, even though he technically never built a steam engine.

And Papin may not have known that his concept dated back 16 centuries to a Greek. It was in the 1st century that Hero of Alexandria (also known as Heron) invented a ball that spun by shooting out twin jets of steam. It was no more than a novelty to open doors in a temple, consuming too much wood to be practical for general work.

Still, it must have been impressive to all those kneeling in the temple for the priest to light a fire and have the doors to the altar open magically…and then (with the help of hidden weights) close just as magically when the fire was extinguished. It did not matter that chopping and carting all the wood that it needed was far more work than simply pulling on the ropes to open and close the doors. The miraculous show was well worth it.

At each step, these “inventors” practiced engineering: applying their knowledge of how things work to create something useful. Countless engineers around the world today are making similar advances to create new technology.

Government is involved in policy direction and
implementation phases of every major technological system…
stimulating initiatives, funding research and development,
regulating for safety and equity, facilitating infrastructure
influencing the money
market, and functioning
as a primary customer of high technology itself.

Edward Wenk


Why was Hero’s steam turbine developed no farther than a novelty? In 1st century Greece, slaves were an important element of the economy (actually outnumbering freemen by more than two to one) and they provided all the work anyone needed. The slave-based economy would have been rocked by the introduction of technological muscle. Displaced slaves might have caused widespread unrest or even revolution. It may have been an emperor, or an advisor to an emperor, who counseled against developing anything so disruptive as a laborsaving device. Historian Hendrik Van Loon noted, “The amount of mechanical development will always be in inverse ratio to the number of slaves that happen to be at a country’s disposal.”

And, so, the steam engine played a role in entertainment, but not business. A similar decision was made in Rome at about the same time. The emperor Vespasian is reported to have purchased and destroyed the model of a mechanical device that would have made construction work more efficient, saying, “You must let me feed my poor commons.”

In these cases, protecting jobs—and, more generally, preserving stability—motivated government to suppress technology, but government has changed technology in many ways. Rome built infrastructure of roads and aqueducts, directly helping those technologies to succeed and indirectly helping all those technologies affected by dense and connected populations.

Earlier, in the Chapter 3 section on Protection, we saw that Venice, England, and the U.S. were among the countries that created patent systems, nurturing innovation by defending intellectual property. Environmental regulations have led to widespread availability of seatbelts and emission controls in cars. But little can compare to the overt role the U.S. took in developing nuclear technology.

[If there had been no Manhattan Project]
Nuclear physicists would have spent years
forming theories and doing experiments
while competing with scientists from other fields
to get money
for their work…[but the U.S.]
had plenty of coal
and oil…[so] the 1990s
would have had low-power nuclear reactors
operating to produce medical isotopes,
but nothing else.

Robert Pool

What if governments had decided against splitting the atom and developing nuclear power? Would that technology have remained unknown for centuries, as steam power was? Modern communication is too effective to allow for such a secret, but the costs of making it economically practical might have been prohibitive. It seems unlikely that commercial organizations would have taken on these huge and expensive government projects:

  1. Developing a workable model of a power plant, giving commercial developers an option for not researching and developing their own designs. In the next section we look at how management decisions influenced the choice of technology for this working model. In the section following that, we look at how industry invested in and further developed it.
  2. Supplying a more-refined fuel than was generally available. Just 0.7% of naturally occurring uranium is U-235 and 99.3% is the less-reactive U-238 isotope. To refine U-235 from U-238, the U.S. government built a four-story structure covering over 40 acres and a facility with 268 buildings, including laboratories, a distilled water plant and eight electric substations. Developers in countries that have not had access to uranium-235 (U-235) or plutonium have built lower efficiency plants that run on naturally occurring uranium-238 (U-238).
  3. Limiting liability for power plants to $560 million (the Price-Anderson Act of 1957), no matter how much damage or loss of life was caused. Since insurance companies would not cover more than about $65 million per plant, the government committed to covering the difference. This insurance “rider” of almost $500 million was provided to the commercial operators without charge.
  4. Agreeing to dispose of all the radioactive waste produced by commercial plants. Since no disposal technology can be proven safe for the tens of thousands of years that the waste will remain dangerous, private corporations might have considered this responsibility too risky to accept. So the government has spent 25 years and $4 billion evaluating and developing the Yucca Mountain storage facility in Nevada. If commercial plants were to pay for it, encasing spent fuel in dry casks of steel and concrete for safe transport to this storage could add $0.03 – 0.06 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) to the cost of electricity. This is a significant sum, considering that their average revenues in 2002 were just $0.07/kWh.

Government gave nuclear power technology a kick-start by figuring out how it could work and by developing the infrastructure to produce the most potent fuel. Then, it kept the technology profitable by limiting risk and promising to take away the nuclear waste. What if the U.S. government had not taken these actions? At the least, nuclear power could have been based on U-238, as Canadian nuclear power is. At most, nuclear power might not have come to the U.S. at all.

In June 2003, the U.S. Senate passed a bill providing increased nuclear research, $865 million to develop new radioactive waste processing techniques, $1.1 billion for a hydrogen-producing nuclear reactor, and loan guarantees covering half the cost of a group of new reactors. Since then, more bills may have passed.

In democratic countries, the voting citizens influence government action by voting on ballot propositions, contacting their representatives, or making enough of a media splash that government representatives take notice. When that government action affects technology, the responsible citizens are changing technology.

How we choose to influence legislation of such complex issues as human cloning depends on a thorough understanding of the costs and benefits as well as the values we use to measure them. In Chapter 8 we identify some of the common tradeoffs between costs and benefits. In Chapter 9 we make explicit the personal values many use in evaluating technology. Later in this chapter, we will see how a concerned citizen changed a nuclear plant being built near her home by working through government to question its safety.


How does an expensive and complex technology such as nuclear technology actually get started? Not the way a better mousetrap does. An inexpensive and simple technology, such as a mousetrap, can be developed by a lone inventor, who then demonstrates its merit. In the case of nuclear technology, the government involvement necessary to demonstrate it came only after strong promotion.

In 1939, a group of physicists gathered to discuss the possibility of tapping the energy in the nucleus of the atom. Experiments in Germany and the U.S. suggested it would be scientifically possible to release it, which could lead to the technological possibility of a bomb thousands of times more powerful than any in existence. Eugene Wigner, who would later win the Nobel Prize for explaining the structure of the atomic nucleus, believed this so important that the U.S. government must be informed. With government assistance, the technology could be proven impractical or could be developed to counter what Nazi Germany might develop.

The thought of Hitler controlling the only super weapon on earth frightened them all. Wigner convinced Enrico Fermi, George Pegram, and Leo Szilard. Fermi had already won a Nobel Prize for work that would lead to the first nuclear chain reaction, a project he would share with Szilard. Pegram was dean of Columbia University and also a physicist.

How does promotion work? It can work very much like a nuclear chain reaction, with one human contact triggering another. As diagrammed at the beginning of this section, Pegram knew the Undersecretary of the Navy, Charles Edison. The group agreed to send Nobel-laureate Fermi to meet with Edison and make the case for government involvement. Unfortunately, Edison was unavailable, so Fermi met with Admiral Stanford C. Hooper, who spoke a language different from that of the scientists. Hooper wanted to know if he should divert resources from one part of the war effort to a more promising front. Pegram’s letter of introduction wanted to cautiously describe the possibilities:

Experiments…reveal that conditions may be found under which… uranium might be used as an explosive that would liberate a million times as much energy per pound as any known explosive. My own feeling is that the possibilities are against this, but my colleagues and I think that the bare possibility should not be disregarded.

Fermi and Hooper met, and the meeting went nowhere. But in nuclear chain reactions, some high-energy particles go flying off into space without effect. To sustain a reaction, there must be enough other particles that do hit their target. Regrouping, the scientists prepared a new particle, contacting Albert Einstein, whose reputation then was even greater than it is now.

A problem with the first approach to promotion was that nuclear technology was more strategic than tactical. Years of work would precede anything practical, but then the results could change the course of the war and, perhaps, the course of all wars. Government administrators are tasked with focusing on the tactical, the practical steps that can lead to predictable results. This proposal was so grand, the group decided to go straight to the top. Einstein agreed to write a letter to the president of the U.S., Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But how would they get to the president? More chain reactions. Szilard knew Gustav Stolper, an economist who knew Alexander Sachs, a sociologist, economist, and speech writer to the president. Sachs listened to the scientists’ argument and agreed that the possibility of a doomsday weapon was so serious that the president must be informed.

Sachs was a crucial link in the chain. He met with Roosevelt personally and told the story of an American inventor who proposed to French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte a new weapon invulnerable to weather: ships without sails. Napoleon thought that an impractical dream, but this did not stop the American, Robert Fulton, the eventual inventor of the first practical steamboat. Within 10 days, the U.S. government held the first meeting of the “Advisory Committee on Uranium.”

The birth of the Manhattan Project, which created the first practical nuclear technology (atomic bombs), would require many more chain reactions of people connecting to people and selling ideas. Throughout the process, there are key roles:

  • Those who develop new information (e.g. physicists conducting experiments)
  • Those who know other, important people
  • Those who sell ideas, as Sachs did to Roosevelt

Promotion relies on all three. Once an idea gains momentum, however, there is need for a new role: the manager.

Even the Typewriter Needed Promotion

The typewriter, one of the biggest advances in written communication since the printing press, had a rocky start. One might think that the typewriter’s advantages over the four-century-old printing press and even more ancient handwriting would be so obvious that no promotion would be necessary. The printing press took hours to set up, with a skilled typesetter carefully placing lead blocks with symbols in relief, so it was practical only for making many copies. The typewriter, by contrast, could uniformly print something even faster than someone could handwrite it.

After the U.S. Civil War, Christopher Sholes invented the typewriter and convinced the Remington firearms manufacturer, which was looking for something to sell in peacetime, to make it. By 1873 they were and, in 1874, Mark Twain bought one to write Tom Sawyer, the first typewritten manuscript submitted to a publisher. With a clever inventor, powerful manufacturer, and prominent early adopter, what could possibly stop its success?

The consumer. Between 1874 and 1880 Remington could sell only 5,000. The initial market had been the home, where it failed because handwritten letters were considered personal and civilized. Typewritten letters looked about as personal as a “garage sale” flyer posted on a telephone pole. Some considered typewritten letters condescending, implying that the recipient could not read handwriting.

So, Remington promoted the typewriter to a different consumer, the business market, where efficiency, legibility, and accuracy were priorities. Sales reached 50,000 over the next six years.

Although the typewriter changed little, continued promotion eventually penetrated the home market, too. Popular opinion turned to accept typewritten correspondence to be as personal and respectful as handwritten. First the business and then the home consumer made the typewriter a success. Later, these two markets did the same for its successor: computerized word-processing.

Invention is a flower, innovation is a weed.

Bob Metcalfe


The inventor nurtures a technology like a gardener cares for a flower. Inventions that survive to become practical innovations become subject to harsher treatment. Managers’ choices favor the tenacious, well-adapted weed over the elegant, but delicate, flower. There is no fate ordained for a technology during the invention phase. Managers can send it in any of countless different directions.

By 1946, several nuclear power technologies had been invented, but none was a working product. Graphite-moderated, liquid-metal, light water, and gas-cooled reactors all had potential. Which ones would thrive? The person who would influence the outcome was a manager, not an inventor. Though he did not even claim to favor the best technology, his choice became the choice of nearly every commercial nuclear plant in the U.S.

Captain Hyman Rickover (later to become admiral) headed the U.S. Navy team that developed a nuclear submarine. The Navy was keenly aware of the problems of powering a submarine with diesel and electric batteries (which we described in the chapter on how technology works). Diesel requires lots of oxygen and produces exhaust—impractical for stealthy, submerged operation. Electric batteries provide very limited energy, quickly needing to be recharged by the diesel. By contrast, nuclear fission requires no oxygen, produces no exhaust, and its radioactive source stores energy a million times more densely than fossil fuels (the last being an advantage for the navy’s surface ships, too).

The question, then, was which nuclear technology to use. Rickover weighed his options. He discarded the graphite-moderated reactor because it required more room than the others. Size is less of a concern for nuclear plants on land, but everything on a submarine must squeeze into as little space as possible. The gas-cooled reactor never made it from plans to prototype.

Initially, Rickover also decided against liquid metal (e.g. sodium) because, although it can be more efficient than light water, it is more dangerous—contact with water causes sodium to combust. The complexity of safety systems for liquid metal made light water the less risky choice for the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus, which launched in January of 1955

Still, liquid metal was worth a try for the second, the Seawolf, which launched six months later. But after several crippling leaks in the Seawolf’s system, Rickover had its liquid metal reactor replaced with a light water one. Rickover and the Navy had made their choice for a technology that they never claimed was the best, but was simply the most practical and reliable given their specific needs.

That effect on technology spread when President Eisenhower cancelled plans for a nuclear powered aircraft carrier and Rickover was assigned to develop the first commercial nuclear plant. Because the light water reactor had worked so well for him on submarines, he specified a larger version for Shippingport, Pennsylvania. During its construction, he shared information through technical reports and seminars. So, by 1957, when Shippingport started full operation, far more was known about how to build a light water reactor—and what mistakes to avoid—than about building any other nuclear power technology. When General Electric (GE) and Westinghouse invested in commercial nuclear power, they chose to develop the well-documented light water technology rather than the untested and risky alternatives. Hyman Rickover, through his management choices, changed technology.

Civilization is moved forward by restless people,
not by those who are satisfied by things as they are.

Ralph Cordiner


Ralph Cordiner, chairman of GE, was restless. In competition with Westinghouse to produce nuclear power plants, GE recognized in the early 1960s that getting big fast was important. The more plants sold, the more experience they gained in building plants, which would lower construction costs. Also, fixed costs of research and testing could be spread across more plants. With lower costs per plant, they could even undercut competition with lower prices while increasing profits.

In this race, would GE or Westinghouse be the one to get big first? Or would a nuclear power technology completely different from the light water reactors that GE and Westinghouse built steal the show? With Europe experimenting with technologies potentially superior to light water, the pressure was on.

To figure out the cost of constructing nuclear plants, GE extrapolated from its experience building fossil-fuel power plants. First, the more fossil-fuel plants it built, the better it got at building them. And, second, the larger the plant, the more economical it was because doubling its output had much less than a doubling effect on the costs of real estate, operating crew, instrumentation and control systems.

GE made its bid to dominate the market by offering construction of nuclear plants at a fixed price (rather than force its customers to bear the uncertainty and risk of this new technology). And it won a $68 million dollar contract to build a plant at Oyster Creek, New Jersey. GE figured it would learn so much that, even if it lost money building this plant, it would make up the profit on subsequent contracts. At 515 megawatts, Oyster Creek was three times larger than any nuclear power plant yet built, and GE offered fixed prices for plants up to 1000 megawatts.

Westinghouse knew that committing to set prices for complex, never-before-built technology like large nuclear power plants involved a lot of risk. However, it, too, understood that the first company to perfect construction techniques could control the market. With hopes of future profit, but expecting the first plants to be loss leaders, Westinghouse jumped in with its own fixed price list. Whichever company blinked first could have only their loss leaders as reward. The other, presumably, would control the market and reap compensatory profits far into the future.

Between 1963 and 1966, the two companies battled for market share. It lasted no longer. They both blinked because the plants were costing them twice as much to build as they were charging their customers. The complexity of nuclear power plants and the potentially far greater catastrophe that could come of failure (and, therefore, the far more restrictive the safety regulations) made them much more expensive to build than fossil-fuel power plants. Both companies returned to supplying just the reactors (a technology with which they had far more experience) at a fixed price, or building complete plants, but on a cost-plus basis.

GE’s and Westinghouse’s investments brought countless advances in the physical components of nuclear power and in the techniques of constructing them into a plant. These created what we now consider “mature” nuclear power technology. But mature technologies can bring complacency and, as we will see, it can take an outsider to bring important changes.

The utility seemed reluctant for people
to look at what they were doing.

— Juanita Ellis


Before she read about nuclear power in a gardening magazine, Juanita Ellis knew almost nothing about it or the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant being built near her home in Dallas, Texas. Scientists and engineers designed the plant, so what would someone with only two quarters of college education have to say about how it should be changed? Quite a lot, as it turned out.

The article in the gardening magazine did not turn Ellis into a nuclear physicist or engineer, but it did inspire her to question its safety. First, she contacted Bob Pomeroy, the author of the article, to find out more about his concerns regarding Comanche Peak. She shared them, concluding that Texas Utilities (TU) Electric was hiding something about their project. So she formed the Citizens Association for Sound Energy (CASE) with Pomeroy and four friends, attended public hearings, and voiced her concerns to the local media.

Ammunition for CASE’s activism arrived with Mark Walsh in 1982, almost a decade after the issue of the gardening magazine that started her cause. Engineers make sure nuclear plants are constructed according to a host of safety guidelines, and Walsh had been one of those engineers at Comanche Peak until his bosses ignored his warnings about defective pipe supports. If a support breaks then a pipe can break and coolant may not reach the reactor core. If not caught quickly, the core can overheat and even meltdown. That is why Walsh quit and sought out Ellis. Other whistleblowers followed and Ellis, representing CASE, caught TU Electric by surprise at subsequent public hearings.

“The little old housewife,” as some TU Electric officials called Ellis, was not supposed to understand technology. But her role was not to out-engineer the engineers. It was to focus the technical knowledge of others, like Walsh, in a public and forceful way. The 445-page report on pipe supports that CASE delivered to the hearings caused a lengthy review of construction. Eventually, TU Electric:

  • Made the recommended fixes and improvements
  • Compensated CASE for its research ($4.5 million)
  • Compensated 50 whistleblowers fired from plant ($5.5 million)
  • Invited a CASE representative to the plant’s independent safety review committee

The fight was not painless. Ellis invested a lot of time. Pomeroy was labeled a subversive in a profile developed by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Comanche Peak took almost a decade longer than planned, due to the wrangling in the public hearing. Also, the plant cost $11 billion, substantially more than the $779 million originally estimated. But without Ellis, Pomeroy, and the battle they waged, it is possible Comanche Peak could have earned the sort of fame that Three Mile Island or Chernobyl received (we analyze the Three Mile Island accident in the next chapter on the costs and benefits of technology). Through questioning, they changed the process around the physical technology.

How the approach in this book changes technology

Consuming, inventing, governing, managing, investing, and questioning are just a few of the ways we shape technology. We can also change it by teaching about these ways. That multiplying effect is what this book aims for and what Don Jacobs has accomplished in his classroom.

Don Jacobs challenges his middle school students to lift his 200+ pound body off the ground for 10 seconds. All fail until he retrieves a thick wooden board from a hiding spot and places it across a rounded block. With Jacobs standing on the short end of this lever, even the smallest student can step on the long end to lift him from the ground and keep him there. His students experience a simple and very old technology that extends our abilities.

I met Don Jacobs in Santa Cruz, California, through Ben, who had been a student in his classroom and, later, mine. My first afternoon in Jacobs’ classroom, I described a curriculum (developed by KnowledgeContext and available on that educational nonprofit corporation’s website: www.KnowledgeContext.org) that parallels this book. He assumed I was talking about computer training—what else could “technology education” be? With two decades of teaching experience, Jacobs recognized the importance of teaching within a big picture, the importance of helping young minds make connections between concepts. And as a crusader for technology, he also was keenly aware of the problems that new technology both encounters and causes.

Working in a self-contained classroom, Jacobs was free to show connections between technology and every subject his students studied, so he tried the curriculum on his class. Then, when he came to a KnowledgeContext board meeting to share his experiences, he carried the authority of someone from the front lines. The message he brought was that the connections of technology to every subject and to the future success of his students was so important, that he believed the curriculum should be mandatory for all students.

Not surprisingly, the computer-savvy students in Jacobs’ class were immediately receptive to a big picture for the technology that was already a hobby for them. The curriculum showed them where computers came from, aspects of how they worked, many technologies beyond computers, the broad reasons we use technology, and how to evaluate the costs and benefits.

The curriculum works in my classroom!
It crosses the Digital Divide to get all my students
thinking about the nature of technology.
By the time we finish, they’ve got a tool
for understanding and evaluating technology.

Don Jacobs

But the students on the other side of the Digital Divide—those less fluent with computers—found even greater value. The alienation from technology that they felt lifted when they realized that they already use technology throughout their lives. In a lesson that mirrors this chapter, they discovered that computer programmers and “scientists in white lab coats” are just two of many roles that influence technology. The curriculum brought them a broader perspective. They went from being “not as good” as the computer whiz kids to having their own, personal, independent relationship with technology—one that tied into their own personal interests in painting, music, cars, or almost anything. Finally, they had context for technology.

The importance of context is well accepted in pedagogy, and schools build context for many subjects. History provides context for economic changes and development of art. Science provides context for applications of math, and is understood in terms of major themes like energy, evolution, patterns of change, scale and structure, stability, and systems & interaction. The meaning or significance of something emerges from the big picture in which it resides. Critical thinking—understanding and evaluating—relies on context. And context is where teachers are strongest.

How can I teach these kids
anything about technology
when they know so much already
and have so much time
to play with it?

7th-8th grade teacher

(in Silicon Valley)

Teachers are busy planning curriculum, grading papers, handling behavior problems, meeting with parents, and keeping abreast of the educational field. Most are better equipped to present the enduring context of technology than they are to teach ephemeral technical information, such as the installation procedure for a new computer operating system. The ICE-9 curriculum leverages the rich and broad education that many teachers bring to the classroom. It helps to put teachers in the position of providing students with the big, contextual picture, and makes more acceptable that some students may be the “experts” on some technical issues.

For teachers and students alike, ICE-9 can be like a Swiss army knife, nine questions that find utility in a variety of situations. Jacobs pointed out that, while classroom projects for evaluating things like pollution and energy sources are popular, in many classrooms the process boils down to an emotional response aligned with the teacher’s personal viewpoints. By contrast, this curriculum gave students an objective strategy to analyze technology-influenced issues and form their own critical positions.

Jacobs’ impact ripples out through hundreds of students. A century from now, the biography of someone who dramatically changed technology may trace back to Don Jacobs’ inspiration and teaching.


Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us…
Your playing small does not serve the world…
as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give
other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson’s poetry about our power as individuals echoes recent scientific discoveries. Attempts to predict avalanches and earthquakes have revealed that natural systems are often on the edge between stability and chaos. To see how this works, imagine throwing a snowball on a meadow of snow. It lands, affecting a small area in a small way. Now, imagine throwing a snowball at an avalanche. It is consumed, having little impact. Finally, imagine a slope of snow so steep that any additional snow would cause an avalanche. One snowball could have a huge impact.

Intuitively we know that most snow is not on the razor’s edge of a devastating avalanche. Otherwise, skiing and snowshoeing would be extremely dangerous sports. But if many tiny mounds of snow were on this edge between the stability of the meadow and the chaos of an avalanche, we might not even notice.

Scientists have found this edge in many less-conspicuous natural systems, using “chaos theory” or “complexity theory” to analyze them. It underlies the story about the beating of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world causing a storm in another. Although the global weather system is very unlikely to be on such a fine threshold that a butterfly could have such an impact, it does illustrate how many smaller changes actually occur.

And now some are applying this scientific approach to a wider variety of phenomenon. In the book Ubiquity, Mark Buchanan analyzes mass extinctions, the start of wars, and the fall of empires, finding their historical frequency and magnitude to agree with this model. Civilization treads between meadow and avalanche, with small actions sometimes causing large results.

Were civilization all meadow or all avalanche, no individual could have an impact. And yet the individual does, as was the case in 1914, when Archduke Ferdinand of Austria accidentally turned down the wrong street when visiting Serbia and was assassinated by an armed and angry student who could not believe his luck. So started the First World War.

Unlike that student, few of us tread on the edge of a world war, but in our families, neighborhoods, schools, places of worship, businesses, and government, we encounter many such sensitive edges. Lacking omniscience, we rarely know how close we are to triggering great change…or how things would turn out if we do not take action. All we know for sure is how things do turn out.

Guiding our actions is our model for how change happens. If we believe our world a meadow or avalanche, then we might as well just get by. Extra effort would be pointless. However, if we believe our world follows myriad edges we can influence one way or the other, we consider ourselves truly powerful.

For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost;

For the want of the shoe, the horse was lost;

For the want of the horse, the rider was lost;

For the want of a rider, the battle was lost;

For the want of the battle, the kingdom was lost;

All for the want of a nail.

Benjamin Franklin

How do we change technology? By nudging it off edges in the direction of our choosing. With billions of tiny nudges, consuming some technologies and disdaining others. With brilliant inventions. By governing, legislating, adjudicating, and voting. Through management choices maximizing utility and minimizing risk. By investing time and capital. With questioning of assumptions. By teaching about these roles and the greater context of technology and how we evaluate it.

We change technology in more ways than this, and all are guided by our understanding of it. We are its creator, beneficiary, victim, judge, and guide. With a contextual understanding of how it connects with all aspects of our lives, we can make conscious, deliberate choices. We can create an intentional future.


This webpage is adapted from the book
Technology Challenged: Understanding Our Creations & Choosing Our Future
available at Amazon