Pacey, Meaning in the Hands, Chapter 9.


What is a "people centered technology" and how do we create a more humane set of techniques to manage, if not control, a more human focused tool complex?

Case study next

Ohio River at dawn: coal fired, electrical generating plant, 1991, JVS.

meaning | problem | consequences | main ideas | lesson


Because certain language-use gets in the way of understanding Pacey's challenge to us, we must define his terms.

ending arguments

The tall stacks in the photograph above were originally intended to be a technological solution to local air pollution. With taller chimneys to carry the sulphur dioxide and other wastes from combustion of fossil fuels away from the immediate surroundings, engineers thought that the "solution to pollution" was "far-flungdistribution."

property rights

One means of conceptualizing the impacts of the power plant on the immediate community is to see the electricity as a benefit and the pollution from the burning of fossil fuels as a cost.


In dispersing the air pollution to ever greater distances an unintended consequence became apparent as more Ohio Valley plants that used huge amounts of coal were built and refitted with tall stacks. Hundreds of mile away in upstate New York, New England, and Maritime Canada the accumulating sulphur that precipitated --or became solid and fell to earth-- out in fog, rain, or snow began to change the acid -alkaline balance (pH) of the surrounding lakes, rivers and streams. Even worse, the timber in areas downwind of large coal burning industrial areas in the US and the EU had been damaged by a build up of acid precipitation.

Called acid rain, the destruction of fisheries, water quality, and forests was initially denied by the coal companies and their allies in Washington such as Senator Byrd of West Virginia, President Reagan, and Secretary of Interior James Watt.

As the technical solution generated an unexpected larger problem critics of the "technical-fix approach" to industrialism pointed out the health effects of acid on peoples lungs, and the capacity of "acid-rain" to deface the finishes on cars, buildings and monument.

Technology -- far from being a means of solving problems, instead created a political obstacle to accountable and fair procedures that undermined the legal system, undermined scientific consensus, and adversely impacted the timber industry directly.


The overriding irony of our times is that we have at our disposal --to use wisely-- an unimaginable, and even envied, array of means to create a nurturing civilization, yet we lack the requisite imagination to reconfigure our tool complexes to enrich our spirits, ennoble our actions and humanize our objectives.

meaning | problem | consequences | main ideas

Concluding Lesson

books Pacey

The Missed Opportunity? A People Centered Technology

His last chapter's organization:

Process and Design

Industrial and Medical contexts of tool complexes

Alternative Paradigms

Ecocentric and People-centered approaches

Ethical Awareness

meaning | problem | consequences | Ending argument | main ideas

Three Main points:

Pacey is worth examining and explicating in detail because, although he is hard to follow, he he has given us criteria for how to create a tool complex, without violating Kranzberg's Laws, that may liberate our urges to improve our conditions and the lives of people in the rest of the world. We need such goals to function well in society.

1. Avoid the habit of compartmentalized thinking which consumes us as we become stressed. ( Meaning in Technology, p. 217.)

2. Identify and connect together the "unexamined assumptions" as to how tools, which are designed to have impacts, affect the way people and nature are valued." (Meaning in Technology, p. 219)

3. Technical competency requires a moral imagination because even the use of tools brings with it a responsibility; we call that obligation a concern for safety, an awareness of the tool's limitations, and the necessity to create contingency plans, with sufficient back-up systems to correct errors in judgment or malfunctions.

Such steps are the requisite ethical "software" you need in a culture of technically complex and powerful "hardware."

meaning | problem | consequences | terms defined | Ending argument | imagery | warnings

Define terms:

Ending argument | main ideas | imagery | warnings

My reflection on Pacey:

There's a necessary dialogue that must transpire between users and designers, among inventors and marketers, between sales forces and customer service sectors if we are to reinforce restraint that restores people's power in situations where they are otherwise powerless. The children in the industrial mill pictured above left are just one image of the power of mechanization to redefine our concept of families thereby rendering working class women and children powerless to alter their social and economic conditions.

Without a collaborative change in the way we educate each other about images, actions, beliefs and spoken language, as the written language is replaced by audio we may lose the capacity to participate effectively in decision-making because we do not know anything.


"All these experiences contributed to his sense of the meaning of life, but when he tried to define what it all added up to, he was baffled to find that it was "not to be put into words.' " (Meaning in Technology, p. 222.)

meaning | problem | consequences | terms defined | main ideas | imagery | warnings


We cannot lose the capacity to communicate clearly, honestly and emotively when we are on the edge--where, and when, three revolutions in technical capability are converging with the promise and power we have seen before.

Such a synergy means that we must rise to the occasion or be buried in our illusions.

Tools of Toil: what to read.
Tools are historical building blocks of technology.

What is the history of technology?