In my talk tonight, I want to pick up on the theme of the fiftieth-anniversary meeting of SHOT, held in Washington, D.C., in 2007, “Looking Back, Looking Beyond.”1 I want to comment on some transformations that have occurred within SHOT, within the scholarly community of “technology’s storytellers,” since John Staudenmaier wrote his classic book of that title in 1985.
SHOT and the stories we tell about technology have changed quite a bit over the past thirty years. SHOT is beginning to live up to its claim to be an “international” society. We meet regularly outside of North America and we have appointed an editor in chief of Technology and Culture, Suzanne Moon, who is committed to promoting the global history of technology. The increased internationalization of SHOT is evident at this year’s meeting in Copenhagen. The opening plenary was on transnationalism, there was a workshop with the Tensions of Europe initiative, and Wiebe Bijker gave the Leonardo da Vinci Lecture. The stories told in Technology and Culture, as well as in the journals History and Technology and Enterprise and Society, have become more global. The scope of these stories is indicated by the titles of the sessions held at SHOT’s Fiftieth-Anniversary Workshop, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation: “Technology and the Public(s)”; “Technology and Power in the Contemporary World”; “The Dynamics of Technical Revolutions: Space and War”; “Scholarship at the Intersection: Technology and the Environment”; “Race, Gender, and Technology in History”; and “Technology’s Animating Passions.”2 In 2010, Technology and Culture published ten essays from the workshop which comprise a snapshot of the current state of the field and its aspirations. If we compare that snapshot with the detailed portrait painted in Technology’s Storytellers, we see many transformations that have occurred in the history of technology over the past three decades.
I have sense enough not to attempt tonight to give even a brief Staudenmaier-like analysis of the past thirty years. Some good surveys have appeared in the meantime. John himself published two historiographic articles a decade apart, in 1990 and 2002. David Edgerton, Tom Misa, and Steve Usselman have followed suit.3 But the task of conducting an exhaustive review of the stories we tell about technology is daunting. Scholarship in our field has grown to the point where SHOT now awards two book prizes, gives awards, prizes, and fellowships for research conducted in a variety of areas, and hosts a dozen Special Interest Groups, many of them awarding their own prizes for books and articles. The newest Special Interest Group, EDITH, which held its first meeting in Copenhagen, is dedicated to improving the diversity of SHOT’s membership and the diversity of the scholarship it supports. Workers in such fields as science and technology studies, business history, American studies, environmental history, and geography regularly contribute to the history of technology.
I will not try to survey the breadth and depth of this flood of research. Instead, I’ll sketch some broad changes in the stories told about technology since John’s book appeared in 1985, comment on two transformations I have seen close at hand, and draw attention to one area that is still emerging after all of these years.
Some Transformations What kinds of stories do we now tell about technology? How do we tell them? To whom and for what purpose? Who is telling them? Who is that royal “we” I imperialistically invoked just now?
At the plenary session of SHOT’s fiftieth-anniversary meeting, Rebecca Herzig drew on an article by environmental historian William Cronon about conflicting dust bowl narratives to ask, What is the moral arc of the stories we tell about technology? Like Cronon, Herzig asked us to “consider the morals of our story, be they progressive or declensionist, triumphant or tragic.” Referring to Wiebe Bijker’s call at that plenary for historians of technology to engage more directly with political issues, Herzig observed that if we take the literary analysis of narratives seriously, “it would seem that our histories are ‘engaged’ whether we wish them to be or not, whether we self-consciously advertise the lessons of our narratives or not.”4 In America as Second Creation, David Nye analyzes the technological foundation narratives that white writers constructed around the axe, the mill, the railroad, and irrigation systems to justify westward expansion across the North American continent. Native Americans, laborers, farmers, and reformers constructed counternarratives around the very same artifacts and systems to criticize the environmental, cultural, and human damage left in their wake. But these counternarratives did not displace the dominant story that celebrated the forward march of technology and social progress.5
Nye’s book reminds me that we, as technology’s scholarly storytellers, do not construct the dominant narrative told about technology in today’s world. That has long been told by a host of other storytellers: corporations, politicians, journalists, advertising agencies, utopian novelists, biographers, and teachers. For the past thirty years, historians of technology have constructed a well-documented counternarrative. We have argued that technology is not reducible to applied science; that technology, on its own, does not drive history; that government promotes as much as it regulates technology; and that invention is a social process rather than the heroic act of a Thomas Edison or a Steve Jobs. We have, in other words, criticized every part of the thesis expressed in that pithy motto of the world’s fair held in Chicago in 1933—Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms— including its gendered, racist, and imperialist implications.6 For the most part, we tell our counternarrative to ourselves, to our colleagues and students in academia, to museum-goers, and, increasingly, to public agencies.7 As Herzig says, our stories do engage the morality, the politics, of technology, whether we want them to or not. But we should not assume, as I often have, that someone else will faithfully translate those stories into political action.
In Technology’s Storytellers, Staudenmaier described how the articles published in Technology and Culture had changed in important ways during the journal’s first twenty years. In response to an internalist form of progress talk, a contextualist language emerged that aspired to integrate what John called “technical design and cultural ambience,” the goal promised by the journal’s title. John promoted that integration in his book and as editor in chief of T&C for fifteen years. Also in the mid-1980s, a new program emerged in the sociology of technology—SCOT, the social construction of technology. I think SCOT meshed well with John’s contextualist history of technology. Both critiqued the deterministic assumptions of autonomous technology and the “technology’s cultural relativity,” to use John’s original formulation. SCOT also meshed well with the sociotechnical systems theory of John’s mentor Tom Hughes, who co-edited with Wiebe Bijker and Trevor Pinch the standard text, The Social Construction of Technological Systems, in 1987. As John pointed out in Technology’s Storytellers, the Hughesian concept of technological momentum had the ability—which had not yet been realized—to integrate design and ambience.8 Steve Usselman notes in his recent historiography that SCOT has greatly influenced the methodology of historians of technology in the United States, how they tell their stories, since the mid-1980s. He also points to criticisms of SCOT as a new form of internalism and recent proposals to move beyond SCOT, to reconsider how technology creates culture.9 I’ll return to that subject later in the talk.
The stories we tell about technology have changed in many other ways during the past thirty years. Questions asked about the relationship between science and technology, once a dominant theme in SHOT, have been transformed from what is the nature of technical knowledge to what boundary work is performed by the rhetoric of technology as applied science, and how interdisciplinary communities commercialize laboratory research.10 Questions about women and technology have shifted, as they have in the larger academy, to those of gender relations and gender identity, to consider both masculinity and femininity.11 Questions about national style and technology transfer are often reframed in terms of national identity and the circulation and appropriation of knowledge and artifacts.12 Sometimes the abstraction of materiality crowds out the concreteness of artifacts. Our stories have expanded to include use, mediation, and tinkering, as well as the confluence between environmental and technological history.13 The history of computing has been integrated with the history of technology.14
As we heard in the opening plenary, the Tensions of Europe project has adopted the transnational turn in political science and history. The long-held aspiration of bringing the history of technology into the realm of general history is evident in the transnational turn in Europe, the interpretation of transnationalism as a circulation between the global North and the global South, and in many other research areas.15 I’m reminded of this fact when my colleagues in the History Department at Cornell University ask me to teach a week on the history of technology in the graduate-student proseminar for American historians. I realize then that I have a much longer list of books to choose from than I did when I arrived at Cornell in 1987.16
I turn now to the stories we tell about the two themes with which I am most familiar: the relationship between science and technology, and users of technology. Both themes have drawn renewed attention in recent years. In fact, criticisms of how historians of technology deal with these themes came up during SHOT’s fiftieth-anniversary meeting in 2007.
At that meeting, Eric Schatzberg organized a panel to reply to a long paper published in History and Technology by historian of science Paul Forman, who critiqued how historians of technology have treated science. Forman’s thesis is neatly summarized by the title of his paper, “The Primacy of Science in Modernity, Technology in Postmodernity, and of Ideology in the History of Technology.” Forman argued that a reversal in the primacy of science over technology occurred during a cultural transformation from modernity to postmodernity, which he dated to about 1980. Historians of technology were unable to perceive that shift, Forman said, because they held an ideology characterized by an “ignoration of science” and an ambivalence toward technology. At the jam-packed session, Eric Schatzberg, Bill Leslie, Carroll Pursell, Norton Wise, and I responded to Forman and his thesis.17
In preparing my remarks, I was struck by Forman’s adherence to a pure-science ideal, whose history had been told by the very research program he criticized in the history of technology. Forman lamented that pure science had lost its primacy, its cultural ascendancy, to technology because postmodern culture valued means above ends, technological miracles above the laws of science. The stakes were high for Forman, no less than the fate of science under the alleged reign of technology in the late twentieth century. This type of explanation, how an era’s culture corrupted pure science, was not new for Forman. It was central to two of his previous, justly famous essays: on Weimar culture and quantum theory, and on cold war military funding and academic physics in the United States.18 In the 2007 paper, Forman argued that the “ignoration of science” among historians of technology originated from two sources. Initially, it sprang from the work of Ed Layton and others in the 1970s, who researched the autonomy of technological knowledge to reinforce the disciplinary autonomy of the history of technology from the history of science. According to Forman, the cultural pressures of postmodernity caused historians of technology to abandon this research program as a dead end and separate themselves from the history of science in a second way, by simply ignoring science altogether.19
I replied that much more was at play at that time among historians of technology than how this diverse group of scholars treated science. From my point of view, Forman also misread recent work by Ruth Oldenziel, Eric Schatzberg, and myself on the linguistic history of the terms “technology,” “applied science,” and “information technology” when he used our work to support his thesis. To buttress my argument that historians of technology had not ignored science, I cited the work of several authors in the fields of electricity, electronics, and nuclear weapons.20