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Donald MacKenzie (University of Edinburgh)

The Society for the History of Technology is delighted to present the 2022 Leonardo da Vinci Medal, its highest recognition, to Donald MacKenzie for his outstanding contributions to the history of technology, through innovative research, imaginative teaching, sustained publications, and significant contributions to Technology and Culture and other society activities.  For an astonishing four decades, MacKenzie has been at the forefront of advancing scholarly understandings of technology’s interactions with politics, society, science, and culture.

Readers of T&C may be most familiar with MacKenzie’s 1984 Usher-Prize-winning essay, “Marx and the Machine.”  It is a close and careful interpretation of Karl Marx as a technological determinist, with a persuasive argument that Marx varied his views on technology depending on the scope of his treatment.  So, the famous determinist aphorism “The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist” is a partial truth, since (as MacKenzie put it) Marx well understood that “social relations molded technology.”  At the time, MacKenzie himself was productively expanding on his early publications in sociology of science, at the University of Edinburgh, synthesizing the established “labor process” and emergent constructivist perspectives on technology with deep historical research.  Already by 1990, three books outlined this arc: Statistics in Britain, 1865-1930: The Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge (1981); The Social Shaping of Technology (1985,1999), a field-shaping anthology with Judy Wajcman; and Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance (1990), which won two major book prizes.

Inventing Accuracy began a productive relationship with MIT Press, which published three additional of his books. Seemingly a collection of essays, Knowing Machines (1998) also announces an ambitious intellectual program.  Results came impressively.  Mackenzie’s Mechanizing Proof (2004) examined the subtle problem of “provably correct” computer programs, one linchpin of today’s computer security.  An Engine, Not a Camera (2008) launched MacKenzie’s investigations into the internal functioning of global financial flows, continued with his coedited volume Do Economists Make Markets?: On the Performativity of Economics (Princeton 2008) and Trading at the Speed of Light: How Ultrafast Algorithms Are Transforming Financial Markets (Princeton 2021).  Each of these rewards close readings; but none of MacKenzie’s books are easy reads.  They engage detailed knowledge of the insides of microprocessors or laser gyroscopes, or the minutia of nuclear missile guidance systems, or the topologies of fiber-optic or microwave-relay networks.  A distinguishing feature of MacKenzie’s scholarship is that the reader readily knows that the demanding technical material, if properly understood, will yield significant insight into the nature of technology and culture.

MacKenzie’s broad influence might be gauged in two complementary ways.  Early on, his books relied on his personal interviews and extensive travels as well as consultation of documentary sources to guide those interviews. A number of his 40 Ph.D students and research assistants have themselves become significant figures in the field.  He also sought the widest possible publication venues, expanding well beyond scholarly journals to include business and technical fields, such as Journal of Risk Model Validation and Financial Times, as well as essays in New Left Review, London Review of Books, and numerous anthologies.

For advancing our understanding of the history of technology, for exemplifying new and productive research methods and strategies, and for widely and creatively communicating the results, Donald MacKenzie is a worthy recipient of SHOT’s 2022 Da Vinci Medal.