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Historical Perspectives on Technology, Culture, and Society

A booklet series produced by the Society for the History of Technology in cooperation with the American Historical Association.

An Introduction to the Series

Historical Perspectives seriesTechnology reflects and shapes human history. From the establishment of neolithic farming and food-storage techniques to the development of metallurgy, weaving, printing, and electronics, history and technology have been integral to one another. The role of the stirrup in the Middle Ages, gunpowder in the thirteenth century, printing in the fifteenth, the steam engine in the eighteenth, factories in the nineteenth, and nuclear power in the twentieth are all subjects of an expansive scholarly literature. This literature spotlights many animated controversies about choices made among competing techniques for attaining the same end–whether automobiles would be powered by steam, electricity, or internal combustion, for example.

Yet the import of technology and its mutual interactions with society and culture has often been neglected in the high school, college, and even university curricula. When teachers unfamiliar with its rich historiography do consider technology, they all too often treat it as inert or determinate, lending their authority to the fallacy that it advances according to its own internal logic. Scholarly specialists now largely agree about what is called social construction: the idea that technologies succeed or fail (or emerge at all) partly because of the political strategies employed by “actors”– individuals, groups, and organizations–that have conflicting or complementary interests in particular outcomes. Most of them also agree that success or failure is contingent on inescapable physical realities, “that the human fabric depends to a large degree on the behavior of atoms,” as the distinguished historian and metallurgist Cyril Stanley Smith put it. But there is no doubt that technological designs are shaped by ambient social and cultural factors—nor, indeed, that the shaping of technology is integral to the shaping of society and culture.

Second atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan

Second atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan

This booklet series, a joint venture of the Society for the History of Technology and the American Historical Association, draws on the analytical insights of scholars who address technology in social and cultural context. Some of them are concerned primarily with the relationship of technology to labor, economics, political structure, or the organization of production; sometimes their concern is with the role that technology plays in differentiating social status and the construction of gender; sometimes it is with interpretive flexibility– the perception that determinations about whether a technology “works” are contingent on the expectations, needs, and ideology of those who interact with it. Following from this is the understanding that technology is not intrinsically useful or even rational; capitalist ideology in particular has served to mask powerful nonutilitarian motives for technological novelty, among them kinesthetic pleasure, a sense of play, curiosity, and the exercise of ingenuity for its own sake, a phenomenon known as technological enthusiasm. As evidence of this, many inventions–from the mechanical clock during the Renaissance to the telephone and the automobile more recently–met only marginal needs at the outset. Needs with any substantial economic significance had to be contrived, thereby making invention the mother of necessity.

The Daye Press (i.e., Dresden Press), 1639

The Daye Press (i.e., Dresden Press), 1639

There are various definitions of technology. Sometimes it is defined as the way that “things are done or made,” and this is a useful definition whenever one asks how things were done or made in a particular way in a particular context and then analyzes the implications of taking one path rather than another. Lynn White, Jr., a historian who served as president of both the Society for the History of Technology and the American Historical Association, called this “the jungle of meaning.” While the notion that technology marches of its own predetermined accord still has a strong hold on popular sensibilities, specialists in the interaction of technology, society, and culture now understand that it cannot do anything of the sort. Technology is not autonomous; rather, it is impelled by choices made in the context of circumstances in ambient realms, very often in the context of disputes over political power. Once chosen, however, technologies can exert a powerful influence on future choices. One only needs to consider the Strategic Defense Initiative, “Star Wars,” which has been funded for decades not because it is actually feasible but because it provides partisans with effective political rhetoric.

Definitions of technology vary from one discipline to another. We believe that defining it as “the sum of the methods by which a social group provides itself with the material objects of their civilization” is sufficiently concrete without being too confining. It is important to specify the word material, for there are of course “techniques” having to do with everything from poetics to sex to bureaucratic administration. Some might go further and specify that “material” be taken to mean three-dimensional “things,” and this seems satisfactory as long as one bears in mind that even an abstraction such as a computer program, or an idea for the design of a machine, or an ideology such as technocracy or scientific management is contingent upon its expression in tangible artifacts.

Prior to the twentieth century, issues that historians now frame in terms of the word technology were defined by the historical actors themselves in other terms. In his 1829 book Elements of Technology, the botanist Jacob Bigelow wrote that he used the term to encompass “the principles, processes, and nomenclature of the more conspicuous arts, particularly those which involve applications of science, and which may be considered useful.” For some time, the word was used primarily in the context of technical education, a notable instance being the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded in 1861. For some time after that–and perhaps even today–it was not a term known to every culture. Technology still encompasses various actors’ categories in diverse historical contexts, and that is part of the reason why contemporary scholars still define it variously. We believe that the complexity of definition, conceptual categories, and methodologies is instrumental in making the history of technology such a fruitful area of inquiry.

“Every generation writes its own history,” said Carl Becker. In commissioning and editing the essays in these booklets, we have sought to have each one convey a broadly informed synthesis of the best scholarship, to outline the salient historiographical issues, and to highlight interpretive stances that seem persuasive to our own generation. We believe that the scholars represented in this series have all succeeded in integrating their inquiries with mainstream scholarship, and we trust that their booklets provide ample confirmation of this belief.

Pamela O. Long and Asif Siddiqi, Series Editors
— Robert C. Post, Advisory Editor

You may purchase booklets in the series via Amazon.com.

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