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Donald Mackenzie

Donald MacKenzie is Professor of Sociology (Personal Chair) at the University of Edinburgh. His books include Inventing Accuracy (1990), Knowing Machines (1996), and Mechanizing Proof (2001), all published by the MIT Press. Portions of An Engine, not a Camera won the Viviana A. Zelizer Prize in economic sociology from the American Sociological Association.

Titles by This Author

How Financial Models Shape Markets

In An Engine, Not a Camera, Donald MacKenzie argues that the emergence of modern economic theories of finance affected financial markets in fundamental ways. These new, Nobel Prize-winning theories, based on elegant mathematical models of markets, were not simply external analyses but intrinsic parts of economic processes. Paraphrasing Milton Friedman, MacKenzie says that economic models are an engine of inquiry rather than a camera to reproduce empirical facts. More than that, the emergence of an authoritative theory of financial markets altered those markets fundamentally. For example, in 1970, there was almost no trading in financial derivatives such as "futures." By June of 2004, derivatives contracts totaling $273 trillion were outstanding worldwide. MacKenzie suggests that this growth could never have happened without the development of theories that gave derivatives legitimacy and explained their complexities. MacKenzie examines the role played by finance theory in the two most serious crises to hit the world's financial markets in recent years: the stock market crash of 1987 and the market turmoil that engulfed the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management in 1998. He also looks at finance theory that is somewhat beyond the mainstream—chaos theorist Benoit Mandelbrot's model of "wild" randomness. MacKenzie's pioneering work in the social studies of finance will interest anyone who wants to understand how America’s financial markets have grown into their current form.

Computing, Risk, and Trust

Most aspects of our private and social lives—our safety, the integrity of the financial system, the functioning of utilities and other services, and national security—now depend on computing. But how can we know that this computing is trustworthy? In Mechanizing Proof, Donald MacKenzie addresses this key issue by investigating the interrelations of computing, risk, and mathematical proof over the last half century from the perspectives of history and sociology. His discussion draws on the technical literature of computer science and artificial intelligence and on extensive interviews with participants.

MacKenzie argues that our culture now contains two ideals of proof: proof as traditionally conducted by human mathematicians, and formal, mechanized proof. He describes the systems constructed by those committed to the latter ideal and the many questions those systems raise about the nature of proof. He looks at the primary social influence on the development of automated proof—the need to predict the behavior of the computer systems upon which human life and security depend—and explores the involvement of powerful organizations such as the National Security Agency. He concludes that in mechanizing proof, and in pursuing dependable computer systems, we do not obviate the need for trust in our collective human judgment.

Essays on Technical Change


Ranging from broad inquiries into the roles of economics and sociology in the explanation of technological change to an argument for the possibility of "uninventing" nuclear weapons, this selection of Donald MacKenzie's essays provides a solid introduction to the style and substance of the sociology of technology.

Two conceptual essays are followed by seven empirical essays focusing on the laser gyroscopes that are central to modern aircraft navigation technology, supercomputers (with a particular emphasis on their use in the design of nuclear weapons), the application of mathematical proof in the design of computer systems, computer-related accidental deaths, and the nature of the knowledge that is needed to design a nuclear bomb. Two of the articles won major prizes on their original journal publication. A substantial new introduction outlines the common themes underlying this body of work and places them in the context of recent debates in technology studies.


A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance

Donald MacKenzie follows one line of technology - strategic ballistic missile guidance through a succession of weapons systems to reveal the workings of a world that is neither awesome nor unstoppable. He uncovers the parameters, the pressures, and the politics that make up the complex social construction of an equally complex technology.

Donald MacKenzie is Reader in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh.