The thing is ... more than the thing
Context is everything
When the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu commissioned his great pyramid 4,500 years ago, he set out to accomplish what we would call a singular feat of engineering—and he did. His man-made mountain is still the largest of the ancient Egyptian memorial structures, and still considered one of the wonders of the world. (The inside of it is more remarkable in some ways than the outside.)
Berthold Werner, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khufu#/media/File:Gizeh_Cheops_BW_1.jpg
It provided steady work for legions of laborers and artisans; and when it was finished, it could be judged as a success simply because it was finished and didn’t fall down. It was built as a royal tomb and immortal monument, and there was no reason why those who saw it completed—or those who would see it over the next four and a half millennia—should judge it as anything less than a literally monumental achievement of its purposes.
About 4,250 years later, the archetypical Victorian British engineer I.K. Brunel decided to build the largest steamship in the world. This was at a time when steamships were competing with sailing vessels for ocean trade. Brunel succeeded, through force of will, his own engineering prowess and reputation, and some other favorable circumstances, and the Great Eastern was launched in 1859—though not without killing some of those working the launch site, and that was a harbinger of things to come.
Charles Parsons, public domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Great_Eastern#/media/File:Great_Eastern_painting_smooth_sea-2.jpg
The ship “worked”—she could do what Brunel envisioned for her: carry the largest number of passengers of any ship from the UK to Australia without refueling—a huge accomplishment, literally and figuratively, at a time when steamships were commercially hobbled by their voracious appetites for fuel. But in a mid-nineteenth-century capitalist market economy, she did not “work.” The ship was never profitable, no matter what new venture her owners tried. She was too big to be practicable in a world where “success” was more than the achievement of an engineering feat; it was measured in the ability of that “feat” to pay its way by earning money in a money economy. She pushed the envelope of what could be built and maintained; she suffered a series of mishaps over her thirty-year working life. Unable to make money for her owners, she was let out to lay the transatlantic telegraph cable in 1865. She was broken up, with difficulty, in 1889.
I have written that one of the ways maritime merchants managed risk and uncertainty in the eighteenth century British Atlantic was by limiting the size of their vessels, and responding to a growth in demand by building more of them rather than by building bigger. A larger ship has the potential to earn a bigger profit, but only if its owners can afford to build and insure it, and then consistently fill it with profitable cargo through a sufficiently-long working life to earn a profit on top of its costs.
In the late 1980s, a resurgent Jaguar Cars, heady with freedom from the economic and creative doldrums of the 1970s British auto industry, said “what the hell, go for it” when their chief engineer asked the company to actually produce a “supercar” that he and a team of volunteers had developed by, literally, working on Saturdays on their own time. What was dubbed the XJ220, for its projected world-beating top speed, was a smashing success in production-ready prototype form, even after some real-world constraints imposed modifications to the original concept. When launched, it was the fastest street car in the world, with the looks and handling and refinement to match. Rich enthusiasts clamored to make deposits, then sat back to wait for Jaguar to make their cars.
“Liftarn,” CC BY 2.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaguar_XJ220#/media/File:JaguarXJ220.jpg
Then the post-1990 recession hit. Jaguar had indexed the sale price of the car, meaning the company could adjust the price upward in response to changes in the value of money. Depositors were horrified to learn that they would be expected to pay almost three times what they thought they would—when they finally got the cars. Furious, many tried to get out of the deal. Meanwhile, the slowdown and production delays stretched delivery times from months to a few years. By the time the cars were ready, the pool of potential buyers had shrunk dramatically, especially at the new inflated price. Commercially, this world’s best supercar was a disaster.
The people we call “engineers”—the people who know how to think up and make something complicated that multiples the abilities and scale of humans many times over, want to make such things because they can. But nothing they make happens in a vacuum. So many circumstances have to come together just-so in order for the thing to exist—and then, so many other circumstances will determine whether or not that thing is a “success”—and those circumstances vary drastically across time and from place to place. To understand technology means not just understanding the ins and outs of the thing itself, but of all the circumstances that allowed it to exist and all the circumstances acting upon it once it was built.