, Volume 34, Issue 2, pp 377–379 | Cite as

Announcing the Professor Cooley archive at Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland: a celebration of the legacy of Mike Cooley

  • Larry StapletonEmail author
  • Brenda O’Neill
  • Kieran Cronin
  • Matthew Kendrick
News Item

1 Introduction

Waterford Institute of Technology is delighted to announce that it has acquired by donation from the Cooley Family the entire archive of Professor Michael Cooley. The collection, which has been donated via the INSYTE Centre and is now housed at the Luke Wadding Library at WIT, includes over 1400 items with photographs, correspondences, journals, books, drawings, videos, cassette tapes, slides and other content and media. The acquisition is of enormous academic significance, and institute librarians are actively curating this large and complex collection which is available to the Irish and international scholarly community. We warmly welcome students and scholars to avail of this important resource.

2 The Cooley collection: celebration of a visionary

Born in 1934, Michael Cooley was raised in a small, tightly knit rural community in the west of Ireland. He grew up in a period of economic privation the Irish people refer to as the “Economic War” and “the Emergency”. During these times, trade restrictions on Irish exports and the shortages as a result of World War 2 inflicted great hardship in Ireland. To survive, small rural communities had to be creative, resourceful and, most important of all, they had to pull together, valuing what each person could offer in service of the collective in terms of skill and wisdom, resources and care.

Although Michael went on to become a renowned aeronautical and systems engineer, studying engineering in Germany, Switzerland and England, his deep sense of the critical importance of human society and creativity, so central to Irish village life, always shone through. As a cybernetician and systems thinker, he was one of the early advocates of socially responsible, technology development. Alongside his design engineering career, which included amongst other projects work on the first commercial supersonic aircraft: the “Concorde”, he found time to take on a leading role in the trade union movement. In 1981, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (an alternative to the Noble Prize) for his focus on the impact of the new wave of automation upon workers. He was an early pioneer of human centred systems engineering and his international achievements, including the launch of the LUCAS Plan in the 1970s and the establishment of Technology Networks at GLEB in 1980s, as well as steering and chairing international workshops, conferences and symposia on human-centred systems, relentlessly emphasised design approaches for digital systems and technologies that enriched human creativity and liberated people and their communities from the shadow-side of automation.

Mike Cooley’s legacy is huge. Cooley’s work has been translated into over 20 languages, from Finnish to Japanese. His seminal book is “Architect or Bee? The Human Price of Technology”, which continues to be printed following its first publication almost 40 years ago (Cooley 2017). His critique of the automation and computerization of engineering work has had an enormous impact on a generation of academics and practitioners. Decades before concerns about the black swans of an algorithmic culture were raised following the recent financial crash, Mike Cooley expressed deep reservations about the human price of automation in the workplace. He argued for an alternative “human-centred” vision of socially useful technology that facilitated the ethos of human–machine symbiosis that he saw as a collaboration of human judgement and the calculation capacity of the machine. According to Gill (2016), his

“values of the human-centred tradition… are reformulated in the emergence of socially useful artificial super intelligence, Big Data and Internet of Things… Cooley… warns us of the danger of the objectification of human knowledge and experience into information and data; this turns human judgement into calculation and in the process, turns the human into a robot and an appendage of the machine”.

Although he foresaw many of the negative impacts of technology upon community life, his writings do not leave the reader with a sense of negativity about automation systems. Instead, he reinforces human dignity and the great possibilities of advanced automation technologies, both in the workplace and in our relations to one another. He emphasised the importance of physical embodiment, especially the connection between hand and eye, years before systems researchers and philosophers of technology drew attention to this important aspect of modern life in an information society. Cooley’s vision became a catalyst for humanistic movements such as ‘Democratic Participation’ (Scandinavia) and ‘Humanisation of Technology and Work’ (Germany). These European human-centred systems movements provided a basis for the establishment of the ‘Anthropocentric Systems and Technology’ programme of the European Union into the 1990s, an intellectual movement which continues today in various forms.

In short, Mike Cooley’s legacy is of historical importance at a time when the march of digital technology is again transforming working life and human relationships. Mike Cooley in his most recent book, Delinquent Genius (2018), engages us making us reflect on the scope and limitations of science and technology and asserts that, as architects of our own history, we should have the foresight to rewrite the final script, circumvent the final act of automation, and avoid the slippery slope of calculation to judgment.

He is justifiably considered one of the greatest systems engineers ever to have emanated from Ireland. We are therefore very excited and honoured to have secured this wonderful donation on behalf of the Irish and international academic community.

3 Overview of Cooley archive projects at the School Of Science and Computing, Waterford Institute of Technology

Waterford Institute of Technology has a long tradition of human-centred systems education and research. We incorporate human–machine symbiotics into both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. For example, the taught masters in computing in information systems processes is the only programme in Ireland to include mandatory modules in “Computing Ethics and e-Privacy” and “Human Centred Systems Development” and adopts a strong human-centred and process orientation to digital systems design, development and implementation. Postgraduate research studies at the INSYTE Centre have also emphasised human-centred systems approaches, with recent studies in e-agriculture, financial risk management, digital systems adoption in developing regions and e-privacy offering entirely new systems science theories based upon the human-centred principles first proffered by Mike Cooley and the people with whom he worked.

Our department has launched two research projects, which respond to the sheer complexity of the metadata contained in the archive. We anticipate that it will take years to make the archive fully available online: such is the complexity of the artefacts as digital objects, but we have made a start. We are also keen to instil in WIT Computing graduates a sense of their heritage as systems scholars, and an appreciation of what it means to be “human centred” in their approach to digital technology design, development and deployment. Given the sheer complexity of the Cooley Collection (from both a data-processing and intellectual perspective), and the challenge the archive poses for very busy librarians attempting to curate its contents, we sought out a computational approach which embodied Mike’s own valorisation of “human knowledge” over “computer data”, at once making the best of machine codification capabilities without fragmenting the human knowledge down into metadata encodings which only a computer engineer could understand.

4 An invitation to all AIS readers

Students and scholars alike are warmly invited by Waterford Institute Technology to explore the Cooley Collection as we continue to curate it and make it available for scholarly endeavour. To access the archive for research purposes, please contact:

Kieran Croni

Luke Wadding Library


Brenda O’Neill

School of Science & Computing




WIT is extremely grateful for the extraordinary generosity of Mike and the Cooley family, both in the donation and in their engagement with our Institute.


  1. Cooley M (2017) Architect or bee? The human price of technology. New Edition. Spokesman, Russell House, Bullwell Lane, NottinghamGoogle Scholar
  2. Cooley MJ (2018) Delinquent Genius: the strange a air of man and his technology. Spokesman 2018, Russell House, Bulwell Lane, Nottingham. (ISBN: 978-0-851-24878-3)
  3. Gill KS (2016) Architect or Bee? Mike Cooley: the human spirit. AI&Society (Springer). AI Soc (2016) 31:435–437. CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Larry Stapleton
    • 1
    Email author
  • Brenda O’Neill
    • 1
  • Kieran Cronin
    • 1
  • Matthew Kendrick
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Computing and Mathematics, INSYTE CentreWaterford Institute of TechnologyWaterfordIreland

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