Although the work is interesting from a purely informational viewpoint, Mackenzie would be happy to know that it is impossible not to mull the social implications and social context of his book. Donald Mackenzie dedicates this work to "Alice, so you may grow up in a world in which the subject of this book is in every sense a matter of history." Finishing the text in 1989, and watching world events in 1990, Mackenzie writes in a epilogue that he hopes that nuclear weapons may be, at last, uninvented. It seems a strange hope to a reader like myself who never knew a world without nuclear weapons and who grew up with the understanding that new knowledge was like a powerful genie uncorked. Once "out there," the only question was who would control the genie. Lost technologies were the province of apocalyptic science fiction writers or anthropologists in remote South Pacific Islands. How does Mackenzie build a case for the possibility and desirability of the uninvention of nuclear weapons?
Chapter One introduces some main issues: that missile guidance is a way to look at nuclear thinking, that some knowledge claims are hardened into fact and others are not, and that a social context is an integral part of each new weapon-technology-artifact. He argues that even the smallest details of guidance technology reflect a stake in power positions. He sketches out two camps (p. 20): those who believed the best deterrent strategy was in the mutually assured destruction of soft targets like cities, and those who believed that the best deterrent strategy was in counterforce, first strike capability against hard targets like missile silos. He also touches on how he gathered data on a classified subject (the appendix shows quite a bit of interviewing).
Chapter Two describes the "gyro culture" developed after 1850 and the determination of the post-War German armed forces to develop new inertial systems. The end of World War II brought German rocket scientists to the US and Russia, and the conviction that inertial guidance was possible. (presumptive anomalies notwithstanding). Chapter Three traces the linking of guidance systems to the hydrogen bomb, and those in turn to the building of ballistic guided missiles possessed by the Air Force (Atlas, Thor, Titan, Minuteman,), Army (Jupiter, Pershing) and the Navy (Polaris). Chapters Four and Five develop the story of precision through particular missiles and how the branches of the armed services, angling for budgets, power and prestige, and perhaps moral high ground, positioned themselves on either side of the counterforce and deterrent strategies through stricter or looser requirements for accuracy. Chapter Six looks at how the U.S. government understood the state of Soviet technology; how they, too, built up a mixed arsenal of first strike and assured destruction missiles; and how a very different set of social conditions might have created different "facts" about guidance technology.
Picking up that latter theme, the final chapters address two important
questions: how are facts created as facts? and what are the lessons
in 50 years of guidance technology? Mackenzie notes the political
uses of uncertainty about untested missiles. Uncertainty was "boxed" or
closed off according to the shifting definitions surrounding centrally
contested facts. Among the lessons that he offers, the most memorable
is this: overwhelmingly, nuclear weapons work was simply ordinary -- a
job, like any other job -- pursued by a varied group of actors for varied
motives: glory, money, power, interest, patriotism. Mackenzie argues that
there is no pre-existing social need for anything, so -- the job can be
dropped, and facts can be re-engineered into new artifacts.