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December 1st, 2019

Ruth Oldenziel is the new Editor-in-Chief of Technology & Culture

The Society for the History of Technology is happy to announce the appointment of Ruth Oldenziel as the new Editor-in-Chief of Technology & Culture! Ruth will be Technology & Culture’s seventh editor in the society’s 61-year history.

Ruth Oldenziel is a Professor in the History of Technology at Eindhoven University of Technology. She received her PhD in American History from Yale University in 1992, and in 1999 published Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women, and Modern Machines in America, 1870-1945. While trained as an Americanist, her work has often challenged the boundaries between American and European histories of technology. She has also published widely at the intersection of gender and technology.  In 2013, along with Mikael Hård, she published Consumers, Tinkerers, Rebels: The People Who Shaped Europe in the Making Europe series.  Her recent project, Re/Cycling Histories: Paths toward Sustainability examines the history of cycling as a socio-technical activity, charting its change from a leisure vehicle, to a symbol of technological backwardness in the auto age, and then to the titular technical object of urban sustainability in recent decades. Oldenziel regularly performs as a media commentator on US-related news events.

SHOT Executive Council member Lee Vinsel interviewed Oldenziel about her vision for Technology and Culture on September 24, 2019. The conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

What drew you to want to be the editor for Technology and Culture?

That’s a good question. It was not something that I thought I would aspire to. It was really about certain things coming together. But primarily I’m hoping that, by bringing the journal to Eindhoven, we can insert some of the experience that we have had here since 1999 of working collaboratively and working on great big projects to sort of give back. Most of all, it’s about giving back to our community of scholars.

Not everyone who reads this will know about the collaborations that you’ve had going on since 1999. What are they?

Yeah. So, let me explain a little bit. In 1999, initially in Eindhoven, we started a research endeavor by building a research network in Europe, which became known as Tensions of Europe with the ambition to write a synthetic history that would show the relevance of the history of technology. We asked, “What would the history of European integration look like if you look through the lens of history of technology? What kind of story would you get?” In historiographical terms, project is part of the key question: do you see history of technology as a specialization unto itself or as something that can address a larger story by bringing it into general history. That network has grown to 300 or 400–and is currently working on expanding that experience to Asia, Africa, and the South America.

One of the network’s innovative aspects has been that, rather than have single authorship, we have collaborations and multi-authorship. It’s a very European thing, driven by collaborative EU funding schemes since the early 1990s, where you are asked to work with teams from other countries. Writing together in this way, based on the research that Tensions of Europe generated, became known as Making Europe book series. Having to be trained as an Americanist at Yale, when I came to these collaborations, I was really taken back and scared and, you know, fascinated. It was not something that I had intended to do. And now after so many years, I actually find great value in this model of collaboration as well as in the books I have written and edited with other community of scholars. So that has been one experience I will bring to Technology and Culture.

How do you envision bringing these experiences to bear in your role as editor?

I think it’s mostly about tacit knowledge. One thing will be working to diversify the authorship. Suzanne Moon has done an outstanding job in increasing geographical diversity. If you look at the articles that are in the pipeline, it’s very exciting development. All of the continents are being touched on. It’s outstanding. The question is: can we expand the global conversation. A lot of these authors, like myself, have been trained in the United States and writing for English-speaking publishing houses. Together with our new book review editor Dick van Lente, we have the ambition to dig out the gems buried in, say, the German language or Spanish language that we don’t know but should really include. This is something we’ll be able to do by drawing on the growing network we have been building over the years.

What other goals to you have for the journal?

The second thing that I’m hoping to bring to Technology and Culture is my role in being part of public debate. I’ve been in media outlets in many, many capacities – always outside of my work as a scholar, but I really had to think about questions like, “How do you communicate to larger audience? How do you have a larger conversation? What is the kind of expertise as a historian you have that you can bring to the table in current debates?” You know, it was a struggle for me really because academia and public debate are two different worlds, but I have come to believe there are ways to bring them together more.

How are you working to learn where Technology and Culture is right now and what are you finding?

We’ve been talking to many colleagues, and we will continue talking to people. We – I mean, the team here at Eindhoven – want to take our time. One of the things I’ve come to focus on is this question: How do people read Technology and Culture? Talking to Suzanne Moon, I realized that she’d had exactly the same conversation with the previous editor John Staudenmaier ten years ago. My sense is that Technology and Culture is appreciated for its prestige and flagship qualities. The way I would put it is, it is great at producing knowledge. What is less clear – and I think this is the key challenge – is whether enough people are reading it. The community of readers is something we really have to think about. I don’t want to fall in the trap of talking about “the larger public.” Everyone talks about “the larger public,” no one knows what “the larger public is.” It’s a totally useless conversation. But what if we just started with ourselves? When was the last time you read Technology and Culture from cover to cover?

Uh, it has been a long time.

Right. I’ve been asking colleagues, “When was the last time you read a Technology and Culture article?” I think most people say – and it turns out this was the same ten or fifteen years ago – that they really appreciate journals for the book reviews to know what is going on in the field. So, we’re going to upgrade the book review section by including historiographical essays where more than one book is going to be reviewed.

In terms of the research-based articles, I don’t want to change that so much, because I think they’re of good quality, but I do want to focus more on what Staudenmaier and others have described as the “so what?” question. Why do we need to read about this? This is about framing. And there I think we do need to engage the larger public debate, as a matter of course. Internal debates – say about the powers or flaws in this or that theory – have their place, but then you need to ask the question, why bother? I know how hard it is to ask this question and try to answer it. This is what I’ve learned by talking to radio, television, the Internet – every time you have to ask yourself, what do I know? What do I want to say? Where’s my audience? Why should they bother? And can I translate what I’m trying to say in a frame and in a language that is understood?

Historians of technology have a lot to offer. As people in media put it, we are “content rich.” We can rely on somebody to have written fantastic work about almost any topic, but then that book languishes on a shelf. So, that is what I think we need to think about – the conversation that we want to have.

I think you’re already getting at this, but I want to ask you explicitly: What makes you most excited when you think about the journal’s future?

There is already a lot on our plate to maximize what is there. Well, my dream would be, for instance, that we have a fellowship program where popular science writers come and stay with the journal, learn about the community, and are free to write about whatever topic they want based on what we have generated, like an artist-in-residence. That’s also a recognition that everybody has to do whatever they’re good at. So I’m not asking our scholars to be journalists, nor asking journalists to be scholars, but trying to figure out a way to start the conversation. So I hope that when I step down we have several building blocks in place to enlarge the readership that is future proof.

And here I also emphatically include the readership of our own students—the next generation. I’m not entirely sure we’re reaching our graduate and undergraduate students as readers. That’s, in part, where the historiographical essays come in. A historiographical essay should target anyone who’s teaching a new topic, our own colleagues. Like, “I’m teaching a class on robotics – where is that conversation? where should I go?” Second, such essays should be written for the graduate student who starts a new topic and wants to know what the field is and how to approach it. And the third audience is the journalist who is writing about, say, Silicon Valley and robotization or AI and has to familiarize him or herself with the key issues in the field. If we can reach those three, I’m happy. We don’t have to conquer the world, but we need to know our natural allies – our own colleagues, our students, and other allies, like science journalists.

Finally, Technology and Culture, like all journals, is operating in a vastly changing world of reading habits, publishing, and business models. That is something we need to figure out. So, in my new role as editor-in-chief, I consider myself as someone trying to help the journal’s transition into this new world, make the transition transparent, and make it broader conversation. I’m not here to be at the helm for ten or twenty years, which has been the tradition at the journal. We need a transition. And together with our editorial team, I am here to help.

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