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Historical Perspectives on Technology, Culture, and Society

A new book series published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Introduction to the Series

Technology—broadly understood as material artifacts or assemblages of artifacts used by humans to reconfigure social, political, economic activity—has been the subject of a vast canon of scholarship. When the field of the history of technology first developed, scholars devoted much attention to those technologies (and practices associated with them) that seemed to have punctuated important turnings points in the history of humankind. These technologies and practices included, for example, farming and food-storage techniques in the neolithic era, metallurgy, weaving, printing, and electronics. Historians of technology exploring early human civilization, antiquity, and then the middle ages often focused on moments of technical creation in the global context. However, as their temporal focus gravitated to the early modern and modern eras, they have typically narrowed their purview to Western Europe and North America as the geographic loci for the development of technology. Here, they represented the high points of the history of technology in, for example, printing in the fifteenth century, the steam engine in the eighteenth, industrial factories in the nineteenth, and nuclear power in the twentieth. This literature, while valuable for mining the empirical and narrative threads of many technologies, ultimately proved limited for a variety of reasons.

Historians beginning the 1980s onwards have invoked, rethought, and imagined many newer approaches to the history of technology. These have identified, for example: the limitations of deterministic views of technologies as disembodied forces simply acting on society; the many serious pitfalls of Eurocentric narratives that ignore or minimize the costs and contributions of violence, dispossession, and colonialism to the history of technology; the fundamental inequalities of race and gender embedded in both the history and historiography of technology; the question not only of failed technologies, but as Edward Jones-Imhotep has noted, failure as “a condition that machines experience”; and the irreversible costs to both societies and the environment of capitalism to this same history, damage that was occluded from the received literature by triumphalist narratives enraptured by the cult of Western progress and “innovation.” This is not to say that we have always avoided looking at the deleterious costs of technology in history but that the history of technology is far more complex and difficult to parse than we might have imagined. We can still speak of the revolution in mass production in American factories but also account for how the aftereffects of slavery were fundamental to its conception. First and foremost, we have asked ourselves, how positions of power have blinded us to substantive actors, forces, and movements in the global history of technology.

Despite the many recent academic contributions to the history of technology, the mutual interactions between technology and society have 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. Most historians of technology now largely agree that technologies (and technological systems) are socially constructed; 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 also 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.

This monograph series, originally a joint venture of the Society for the History of Technology and the American Historical Association but now published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, draws on the analytical insights of scholars who address technology in social and cultural context. Our goal is to publish scholarship by authors interested in a diversity of approaches, including those who are concerned primarily with the relationship of technology to labor, economics, political structure, or the organization of production; with the role that technology plays in differentiating social class and the construction of gender; with scholarship on those who extend the daily operation of technological systems instead of those who “innovate”; in those who have been written out of the historiography of technology because they did not fit into white male heteronormative narratives; and sometimes, as Jahnavi Phalkey has noted, “explor[ing] the local nature and site of scientific knowledge in reference to its interactions with international history.”

We take for granted the assumption that technology is not intrinsically useful or even rational; that 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 some have characterized as “technological enthusiasm.” As evidence of this, many technologies—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.

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. 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 power manifested in registers of politics, gender, race, and inequality. Once chosen, however, technologies can exert a powerful influence on future choices.

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.

In commissioning and editing the monographs in this series, we seek 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 monographs 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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