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Published: July 1, 1999

 
 

"Rescuing Prometheus," by Thomas P. Hughes

Rescuing Prometheus by Thomas P. Hughes (372 pages, Pantheon Books, 1998)

Not so long ago, Americans believed fervently in using technology to subdue nature. We did it, and we did it big: the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Hoover Dam, other projects worthy of film treatments by Cecil B. DeMille. Now, the giant project has fallen out of fashion. In Rescuing Prometheus, Thomas Parke Hughes, Ph.D., who studies the history and sociology of technology, chronicles four empire-building endeavors that took place over the last half of this century. These are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's SAGE air defense project, the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile project; Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel project and the Defense Department's Arpanet project, which led to the development of the Internet.

Dr. Hughes, an emeritus professor affiliated with M.I.T. and the University of Pennsylvania and author of A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970, views large projects as organizational systems that can help solve technological problems. They do, however, present management challenges unknown to, say, the mavericks who built the railroads or the Erie Canal. Postwar projects have involved government agencies, military and university bureaucracies, competing technologies, world politics, charismatic and/or brilliant personalities — and that is just for starters. Yet on one level or another, these unruly behemoths got tamed. There are lessons here for executives wondering how to do business in an increasingly complex, unpredictable world.

SAGE, or the Semiautomatic Ground Environment project (as it was known in Air Force babble) was a ground-based national defense system that was twitted by its critics as "the best peacetime air defense system ever deployed." Yet both SAGE and the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile program required a revolution in attitude before their startups. The Air Force, whose officers saw aircraft and piloting as a way of life, not a means to an end, was dubious about any long-distance defense system that could be operated from a silo. World War II had demonstrated the effectiveness of air combat.

The great strengths of Rescuing Prometheus are the history and social context Dr. Hughes weaves in. SAGE and Atlas were conceived to fight the Soviet Union, a new enemy and technological equal. In the grisliest, darkest days of the Cold War, nuclear war scenarists had the two superpowers facing off across continents, weapons of mass destruction poised to rain down on each other like the English arrows at Agincourt: inescapably fatal, on a world scale.

The Cold War gave both projects enough urgency to overcome resistance from the reluctant Air Force. SAGE, whatever its shortcomings, became a training ground for engineers who would go on to other important projects. Dr. Hughes emphasizes the synergistic effect of bringing together smart, creative people to solve problems. Under the right circumstances, they coalesce into intellectual communities that become influential far in excess of their numbers. Some of the SAGE-Atlas scientists and engineers turn up later in Rescuing Prometheus, working on development of the packet-switching technology that made Arpanet, and subsequently the Internet, possible. Sage and Atlas were run by scientist-managers who believed that even complex projects could be taken apart like a multidimensional clock and put back in order. A project was like a whole organism composed of separate but interrelated parts. The manager's job was to keep all the interrelationships working in harmony.

The systems approach, or systems analysis, became influential far beyond the military-industrial complex, well into the late 1960's (and late 1970's in academia). To social scientists, systems analysis seemed to offer a way to put a stick up the backs of disciplines perennially accused of being scientifically slack. It offered a way to find scientifically respectable ways to solve social problems.

As systems analysts were quick to find out, their theories tended to reflect closed environments, where variables were known and controllable — not the best model for dealing with social change, which is usually highly politicized and unpredictable.

To look at a large project that required a more flexible, open-ended sort of management, Dr. Hughes studied the Boston Central Artery/Tunnel project. It is a major reworking of that city's highways and river crossings that involves (it is unfinished) several cities; political and neighborhood constituencies; environmental advocates, and local, state and Federal agencies. In contrast, Dr. Hughes notes, "Relatively clear national defense goals and one agency drove SAGE and Atlas." Dr. Hughes indulges in understatement when he comments that the Boston Central Artery project is an instance not just of complexity but of "messy complexity."

The Boston chapter is fascinating and exasperating, even for readers sympathetic to a democratic approach to urban development. Anyone who has ever driven in Boston or tried to walk from downtown to the North End has had fantasies about the disappearance of the current elevated artery system.

Although Dr. Hughes emphasizes the importance of management approaches, he gives leadership credit where it is due. Gen. Bernard Schriever, head of the Atlas project, made peace with the Air Force bureaucracy and kept his project independent. The Central Artery project's chief hero, in Dr. Hughes' view, was Frederick Salvucci, a Boston native with a civil engineering degree from M.I.T., who helped develop the plan, then negotiated his way through thousands of meetings with engineers, community groups, politicians, policy analysts and others. When part of his delicate consensus begins to unravel over the design of a bridge, it is impossible not to think of Rodney King saying, "Can't we all just get along?" As leaders, General Schriever and Mr. Salvucci were not alike, but they were appropriate to their projects: "Both were system builders but they were not interchangeable," Dr. Hughes writes.

Dr. Hughes argues that times yield their own forms of organizational technology. For instance, by the time the Pentagon grasped the significance of the future of computing technology, many members of the scientific community, alienated by the Vietnam War, were no longer willing to gather in working groups as they had during the urgent days of the Cold War. The computer technology that became the Internet developed in a much less institutional way than earlier technology, driven by people who favored peaceful and non-centralized uses of technology. It is no coincidence, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would say, that Internet technology has an anarchic soul.

The United States is often described as a corporate democracy, in which one government responsibility is to keep economic conditions well fit for doing business. Yet in the four case studies presented in Rescuing Prometheus, corporations have virtually no creative role in the initial stages of the new technologies. The computer age, in particular, evolved out of what Dr. Hughes calls the military-industrial-university complex, a loose consortium of government-funded, university-based military projects. Now, with the world at relative peace, Yugoslavia notwithstanding, the government seems to have only a glimmer of interest in technological innovation. It may of necessity be the corporation's Promethean moment.

Reprint No. 99312

 
 
 
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