When in 1995 I was asked to serve as Dean of Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs at MIT, I was nervous—justifiably, as it turned out—that the demands of the office might cut into my research and writing. On the other hand, this thought also went through my mind: “I might get a good book out of this experience.”
This too turned out to be justified. Retooling is not so much a memoir of my experiences as dean as it is a meditation on the digital age experienced by MIT in multiple dimensions at that time—in the upgrading of office systems, engineering education, student residential life, the role of women in engineering and science, and much more.
In Retooling I draw upon this local knowledge to arrive at general insights into the global obsession with technological innovation. Among other things, this book reminds us that the most recent obsession with on-line learning (MOOCs, EdX, Coursera, and multiple other newly launched projects) necessarily brings social as well as technological innovation. This book has a lot to offer to these current discussions.
If this book is a memoir, it is of my grandfather, Warren K. Lewis, who grew up on Spring Garden Farm in Laurel, Delaware. When he entered MIT in 1901, he had no idea that he would be defining a new profession, that of the chemical engineer, rather than returning to the family farm. This is a story of the unintended consequences, including ones of deeply felt loss, that come with what we usually think of as technological and social progress. In this respect, Retooling is part of the story of The Triumph of Human Empire.
I am especially proud of Manuel Castells’ essay review of this book [“The Cultural Crisis of Engineering in the Information Age: Rosalind Williams’s Retooling, Technology and Culture, Vol. 44, No. 3 (July 2003): 586-590] in which he refers to it as a “little-great book” and an “innocent-looking masterpiece.” Towards the end of his comments, Castells writes that the “real theme of the book” is that “technology is society and culture. The culture of engineering was central to the technological foundation of industrial society, and the transition to an information society requires the emergence of a new culture adapted to the engineering of symbol processing and communication that functions as the infrastructure of our society. As a leading center of innovation for both the industrial and the information society, MIT expresses this contradiction and struggles to adapt its own organization and its own technology to the new relationship between its productive and educational role and its social environment. In articulating this complex interplay, Retooling is an exemplary piece of social research on technology wrapped in the shape of a personalized chronicle.”
“ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO AIR”: HISTORIANS OF TECHNOLOGY IN THE INFORMATION REVOLUTION
Published in Technology and Culture, Vol 41, Number 4 (October 2000): 641-68. Note: This version is slightly different from the published one.
“I hate traveling and explorers,” declares Claude Levi-Strauss at the outset of Tristes Tropiques. “Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions.” With similar self-surprise, much as I dislike the reminiscences of university administrators, I find myself proposing to recount some of my own voyages in this realm. Five years ago, when I was offered the job of Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education at MIT, I realized that I was in an unusual and potentially fortunate situation. As a cultural historian of technology, I realized that doing administrative work at MIT would not simply be a diversion from my scholarship, but might even contribute to it. 
There must be an easier way to do research, I have since decided, given the turmoil and even tragedy that have transformed MIT student life in the past few years. Nevertheless, my scholarly discoveries have been considerable; what has also been transformed in recent years is my understanding of engineering and technology, based on new life experiences as an administrator.
As a historian of technology, I grew up, in scholarly terms, with the distinctive concepts, vocabulary, and concerns of a discipline that emerged in the 1960s in close relationship with the profession of engineering. Early historians of technology were typically men (I use the word deliberately) who had studied or even practiced engineering (like Thomas P. Hughes), or historians (like Melvin Kranzberg) closely involved in the education of engineers. Indeed, the very concept of a separate society for technological history emerged at a meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education.  Founding historians of technology shared with engineers a cluster of seemingly self-evident assumptions. They assumed that the “technology”—the grand, key concept–re-created the material world in ways that were useful to human progress. They assumed that technological activities were expressed above all in engineering. Finally, they assumed that engineers were men who worked for industry using rational analysis to design useful things at the lowest cost.
Upon receiving honorary degree from KTH November 20, 2008
A: My name is Arne Kaijser, I am professor of History of technology at KTH and it is my privilege to introduce professor Rosalind Williams to you and to have a conversation with her on the topic “Humanistic dimensions of engineering”.
Rosalind Williams is the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology at MIT. She has degrees from degrees from Harvard, Berkeley and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and she has been at MIT since 1980. Professor Williams is a cultural historian of technology, and in her research she explores the emergence of a predominantly built world as the environment of human life, often using literature as a source of insight. She has written three books and many articles.
Furthermore she has served as Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs, and was the first humanist ever to be given this responsibility. She has also served as president of the Society for the History of Technology.
Rosalind Williams and I have been preparing our conversation today over the internet in the past three weeks, and we thus have a manuscript for our conversation, that we will stick to, primarily to be able to keep within the 30 minutes that we have been allotted.
I would like to start our conversation by simply asking you, Rosalind, why you chose to work at MIT. It is hardly a self evident career path for a full fledged humanist scholar like you to go to a technical university. So was there a special reason for your choice or was it pure coincidence?
R: The short answer is that I read an ad in Science magazine for a post-doctoral position in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology and Society. STS is an interdisciplinary academic department bringing together a variety of historians and social scientists working on the broader dimensions of science and engineering. I got the post-doc, which led me to part-time teaching at MIT, which eventually led to full-time teaching.
The longer answer is that I enjoy working in a technical environment. It feels like home to me, since I am from “a family of engineers.”