What-I-Will-Call-ics Anonymous: Some Current Trends in Science and, Especially, Technology Studies, Part 2


This is the second of three posts on current trends in science and technology studies, focusing especially on the latter. 

In the last post, I tried to describe a shift currently underway in science and technology studies. Part of my claim there was that, if the shift is happening, then some people might be looking in the wrong direction for exciting developments. This misdirection of perception—and outmoded criteria of excellence—could lead one to worry about "intellectual vitality." But our fretful colleagues should chill. There is great and exciting work being done today; it's just not being done where the worried ones are looking. In this post, I outline what I see as the most promising trends in technology studies today. 

(An Aside: I could easily use work from each of the team members of American Science to make my case about the vitality of What-I-Will-Call-ics Anonymous as a social movement and the neo-empirical turn more generally, but doing so would be the kind of unhealthy, nepotistic omphaloskepsis I hope to avoid in this piece. For that reason, I have decided not to use my teammates in my examples.) 

Technology Studies 

When the Ad Hoc Committee on Structure and Organization of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) published its report in late September, worrying about "intellectual vitality" in the field, I found myself in a strange position. As my wife, doctor, or close friends will tell you, I am genetically designed to be an absolute anxiety machine, but I did not share the report's existential angst. Nor did I share its pessimism. As I said in the last post, I think the report systematically underestimated the amount of interesting work being done in the history of technology.

You can't begin a conversation about current trends in technology studies without first talking about the social construction of technology (SCOT), which was the last significant intellectual movement in the field. SCOT left an indelible impression on the study of technology. There isn't a person working in the field today whose work is not influenced in some way by SCOT. SCOT is important.

That said, SCOT had/has several problems. First off, it failed to set a long-term research agenda. It did not have enough open and interesting questions. This fact was understood early on. As David Hounshell wrote in 1995, “The social constructivists have at once brought the history of technology into the postmodern world, have slain the dragon of technological determinism, and have rendered the field incapable of saying much more than ‘all technology is socially constructed.’" To put it in Kuhnian terms, SCOT was a paradigm without tasks for normal science, beyond showing how yet another thing was constructed. After the initial moment of exuberance, SCOT left people in the lurch. For at least a decade and probably more like two, people have been asking, "What comes after SCOT?" No one has answered. You can bet that the lack of an answer has contributed to perceptions of a lack of vitality. 

The more important problem, however, was that, as a social scientific theory, SCOT was always naive. This problem in part had to do with the idiosyncratic backgrounds of the theory's creators. Although SCOT has often been referred to as a "sociology of technology," the foundational works on the topic make hardly any references to traditional sociological concerns or theories. Rather, SCOT was founded on the sociology of science, aka "science studies," which like the other studies movements of the day was heavily influenced by literary theory. Texts (artifacts) have "interpretative flexibility." Different "relevant social groups" have different "interpretations" of what a technology should be. A technology takes its final form through a process of "rhetorical closure."

One result of these theoretical roots is that SCOT had an extraordinarily thin notion of social structure. People often pointed to this weakness by saying that SCOT didn't know how to deal with power. For years, professors have assigned David Noble's essay on how managers adopted computer numerical control machines over the wishes of workers to counter this problematic aspect of SCOT and to remind students that power was real. 

The deeper issue, however, was that, at its core, SCOT was a restatement of interest group pluralism applied to technology instead of government.

Relevant Social (Read, Interest) Groups Influence the Shape of Government Policy . . .
er, I meant "Technological Artefacts"

Now, interest group pluralism was theoretically cutting-edge either in 1908, when Arthur F. Bentley originated the idea in The Process of Government, or in 1951, when David Truman brought Bentley's ideas to a wider audience through The Governmental Process, which partly explains why outsiders are so confused about why historians of technology got excited by SCOT in the 1980s. 

Note in the figure above that relevant social groups exist in a field or space seemingly free of laws, organizations, ideas, institutions, rules, bureaucratic nightmares, cultural norms, "markets," traditions, classes and other divisions of social status, brain-dead help desk receptionists, and other things and factors that make life with technology both frustrating and interesting to study. There were other problems, too. SCOT's focus on "interpretation" left an open door to couple constructionism with the cultural turn that was happening at that time in history (including history of science) and other fields, but that coupling never happened in a formal way either. By neglecting these factors, SCOT failed to connect to the traditional topics and questions of the social sciences, including sociology, anthropology, economics, even history. 

A totally legitimate response to what I have written here would be to say that foundational texts of SCOT were so busy getting the basic ideas across that they didn't have time to deal with these additional issues. But the point is that these connections never developed. (Part of the issue is that thoroughgoing constructionism doesn't really believe that any of the above listed factors are real but holds instead that they are themselves constructed. At that point, you are left with an Ouroboros-like question of how to hold something steady, when your form of analysis seems to be undoing the very ground you are walking on.) And so, SCOT only had a narrow set of questions.

Again, SCOT left people in the lurch, but when it left them there, it left them in a relatively theoretically unsophisticated no (wo)man's land.

There is good news, however. First, we have answers to the "What comes after SCOT?" question, though the answers may not have been explicitly articulated. Second, these answers have arisen from inter-sub-disciplinary nexuses that have allowed for the import of more sophisticated theoretical perspectives than SCOT.

There are many ways to divide up current trends, including by considering topics or by considering exchange points between communities. The history of science has organized itself around topics since at least the early 1990s. (I believe this was a Princeton innovation.) It would be easy to outline current topics of interest in technology studies. For instance, Ann Johnson, Scott Knowles, Patrick McCray, Cyrus Mody, Andrew Russell, Adelheid Voskuhl, and I all examine technological communities in our work. I'm sure there are others doing similar work; that's just a list I came up with in a minute and a half. Environment is another area of current interest; governance, yet another. But I am dubious about relying too heavily on topics as an organizing principle (a topic for another day perhaps), so I have chosen to focus on zones of exchange instead.

The best work being done in technology studies today is being done in three spaces, or so I'll argue. The first two spaces involve overlap with other historical communities, namely the History of Science Society and the Business History Conference. The third space involves the fundamental revisionists who are using theoretical developments from the last thirty years to return to traditional topics in technology studies with fresh eyes. I will deal with each of these spaces in turn.

(An Aside: I am not pretending to be comprehensive here. In grad school, I closely followed developments in environmental history, but I have paid less attention to it since then. I know there is great work being done at the intersections between SHOT and the American Society for Environmental History. Similarly, the history of computing has become its own world. There is excellent work there, and although I have close friends in that space, I don't know it well enough to talk about here.)

The SHOT-HSS Nexus
The old division between the history of technology and the history of science is becoming more and more meaningless, and many fascinating works are being written by people who straddle this disappearing line. (I sometimes say that historians of technology are getting over their HOStilities.) As Lorraine Daston has described, the history of science moved away from science studies some time ago. HOSers, as Daston writes, found themselves "flirting with [mainstream] historians" who were "in turn . . . in hot pursuit of cultural anthropology." 

This trend led to a few results. The history of science became much more oriented towards archives than it had been, say, during the days of Kuhn or in the heyday of "science studies." Second, it led to the formation of what we now call the "cultural history of science." Like other forms of cultural history, the cultural history of science examines changes in language, signs, concepts, and notions (like 'objectivity,' for instance), and it attends to how science is rooted in practices and to the relationship between practices and instruments, for instance. In Norton Wise's formulation of the turn, the cultural history of science examines how individual agents draw on "cultural resources" to accomplish their ends. In some ways, this view amounts to a kind of neo-pragmatism and it relates to sociological theory on "heuristics." Compare Wise's formulation to this quotation from a paper by Ann Swidler, "[This theory] offers an image of culture as a 'tool kit' of symbols, stories, rituals, and world-views, which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems." (link) To this "tool kit," historians of science and technology would add . . . well, tools.

Some people have always worked at the intersections of the history of science and the history of technology. Ken Alder and Jim Fleming immediately come to mind. But there have been a recent spate of studies at this intersection, which suggests a blooming. (Patrick McCray is likely a current thought leader in this space, but I don't know his work well enough yet to fit it into the picture I am painting.) These works often use approaches and questions developed in the history of science to offer new perspectives in the history of technology. The scholars who write these works are usually trained in universities with strong history of science programs.  

In this vein, we can think of Adelheid Voskul's cultural history of automata. Heidi shows, for example, that 18th century automata were not attempts to reproduce the human but were instead related to the notion of "affect" that was much alive during that period. Additionally, Heidi argues that the automata were opportunities for clock and cabinetmakers to show off their skills as much as they were anything else. Makers existed in a competitive status system with other makers and had to prove their worth. 

Another example would be Yulia Frumer's examination of how Western time-keeping and surveying technologies entered Japan. Yulia's work is in part a meditation on different cultural notions of time and space, but she also makes an interesting argument about the relationship between notions of time and space and instruments for measuring those things. The way we use tools shapes the way we think about things the tools measure. Similar in some ways is Stephanie Dick's research into the role of computers in mathematics. Steph shows that mathematicians use of computers shifted both how mathematicians think about themselves and how they conceive the mathematical objects they study. 

To give one more example, Ann Johnson, both in her first book on the history of anti-lock brakes and in her more recent work, uses lessons gain from history of science studies of communities to rethink the study of engineering. Ann examines, for instance, how epistemic communities of engineers choose technical problems and how they form large-scale, often international, sometimes multi-decade projects to change fundamentally the nature of technologies. She draws concepts drawn from the history of science to build on the work of scholars in technology studies, including Tom Hughes, Ed Constant, and Walter Vincenti.

These women draw on insights from the cultural history of science and lead us to rethink the nature of technology. They are doing extremely exciting work that has already taken us far and has the promise to take us even further. 

(An Aside: The report suggested that historians of technology should stop thinking, or at least worrying, about "professionalization." I think this is bad advice. A lack of training programs will likely remain a problem for technology studies for some time. This fact dawned on me when I was at a SHOT meeting in Copenhagen, sitting in a hotel room full of brilliant young historians, and I realized that 3/4's of them were Princeton grad students/recent grads. Although I am a Midwestern proletarian with no love of elites, I felt suddenly thankful for the history of science/technology programs at places like Princeton, Harvard, and Penn.)

The SHOT-BHC Nexus
Another stream of interesting work arises from the intersection between the history of technology and business history, which often draws on Schumpterian and evolutionary economics, neo-Carnegie School organization theory, and other theoretical strands. One example of a work that has excited people in business history in the last decade or so is "Beyond Markets and Hierarchies" by Naomi Lamoreaux, Dan Raff, and Peter Temin. Here is the abstract for that paper:

"We sketch a new synthesis of American business history to replace (and subsume) that put forward by Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., most famously in his book The Visible Hand (1977). We see the
broader subject as the history of the institutions of coordination in the economy, with the management of information and the addressing of problems of informational asymmetries representing central problems for firm- and relationship design. Our analysis emphasizes the endogenous adoption of coordination mechanisms in the context of evolving but specific operating conditions and opportunities. This naturally gives rise both to change and to heterogeneity in the population of coordination mechanisms to be observed in use at any moment in time. In discussing the changes in the population of mechanisms over time, we seek to avoid the tendency, exemplified by Chandler’s work but characteristic of the field, to see history of adoption in teleological rather than evolutionary perspective. We see a richer set of mechanisms in play than is conventional and a more complex historical process at work, in particular a process in which hierarchical institutions have both risen and, more recently, declined in significance."

If you don't see some connections between parts of this just quoted abstract and parts of what I described above about the history of science, blink twice.

Again, just like with Ken Alder and Jim Fleming, some people have been working at the nexus for decades, including some of my closest mentors and friends, like David Hounshell, Steve Usselman, Richard John, and Meg Graham, and other influential figures, like Joanne Yates and Phil Scranton, to name a few. Indeed, Richard John's Network Nation, an examination of the relationship between governance, corporate structure, and technological systems, is a recent important work at this intersection. Richard has been involved in on-going efforts to rethink how we study governance by paying more attention to how power is distributed between different centers, including state and local governments and non-governmental organizations. (In this way, he is a part of a gang of radical Neo-Foucauldians that includes the likes of Brian Balogh, William Novak, and Jessica Wang.)

There are many younger historians working in this space as well. My friend and Stevens Institute of Technology colleague, Andrew Russell, examines how organizations, professions, and power shaped communications standards over the 20th century in his soon-to-be released book, Open Standards and the Digital Age. Part of Andy's project involves a cultural history of the notion of "openness." He also has a side project on the cultural history of "modularity." Similarly, Hyungsub Choi has used theoretical perspectives culled from org theory and the business literature, including the Lamoreaux-Raff-Temin piece, to examine both the transfer of technical knowledge from the US to Japan and the history of nanotechnology. And Barbara Hahn (perhaps the biggest SCOT fan of the bunch) has described the commoditization and construction of tobacco and the making of tobacco markets in her book, Making Tobacco Bright.

Shane Hamilton's account in Trucking Country of the role that trucking played in the Post-WWII US economy can be used to illustrate an important point about many current works at the intersection of business history and the history of technology. This point is also true of many of the works I have already listed. Shane examines how long-haul truckers rose as a social force in the United States and why truckers embraced conservative, free-market politics. In doing so, Hamilton does not focus on the social construction of the tractor truck or even on the social construction of the highway system. For sure, these technologies were changing during this period, but, beyond the immense expansion of highways after the 1950s, they were not experiencing profound qualitative shifts. Instead, Hamilton focuses on how truckers and other individuals and groups _acted_ strategically and politically in a given technological order. This is an important point. In the post-SCOT period, people have become as interested in strategic action with and around technologies as they are interested in the construction and re-construction of technological artifacts or systems.

To the list of people working at the SHOT-BHC, I would also add scholars who use org theory to examine shifts in and around technologies. A few good examples would be Nathan Ensmenger's analysis of what happened when technical experts and geeks entered already-existing organizations in The Computer Boys Take Over,  and Cyrus Mody's use of theories like Powell and DiMaggio's new institutionalism to examine the community that formed around probe microscopes in Instrumental Community.

Fundamental Revisionists
There are also recent instances of people returning seemingly dead topics in the history of technology and giving them new life. Generally, it is senior scholars rather than junior ones doing this, but there are exceptions. It is not at all surprising that some of these fundamental revisionists are drawing on insights from both the history of science AND business history. Consider for a moment W. Bernard Carlson's recent biography of Nikola Tesla.

Woot! What up, Nikola Tesla?
In that book, Bernie shows how Tesla's upbringing in the Orthodox influenced his work as an inventor, basically giving Tesla an idealist understanding of his own practices. This examination of the relationship between religious conceptions and practices would be at home in many histories of science (and, of course, in some ways the topic goes back to Merton 1938). Bernie also uses insights from business history to show that inventors often rely on, perhaps even require, entrepreneur partners to be truly successful. He describes a case where Tesla had a partner and succeeded and another case where Tesla was partnerless and failed.  

In the same breath as Bernie's book, I would mention Eric Hintz's dissertation and eventual book, The Post-Heroic Generation, which examines the role of independent inventors in the early-to-mid-20th century. Hintz uses lessons from business history to analyze how things like patent law and contracts shaped the space of and opportunities for inventions, and he draws insights from the history of science—like the treatment Mario Biagioli gives Galileo—to show how inventors invent themselves as much as technologies. 

There are other terrific examples of people revisiting old topics, including Paul Forman's recent re-interpretation of the science-technology relationship and Eric Schatzberg's revisionist history of the notion of "technology." We have also entered the space with some topics where, after much work, we can begin to offer synthetic accounts. I'm particularly thinking of Arwen Mohun's nice book, Risk, which examines the relationship between expert and vernacular notions of risk over the course of US history.

There is so much more interesting work to be done both in terms of synthesis and in terms of returning to old topics with new eyeballs.


So far in this post, I have tried to outline some of the exciting things currently happening in technology studies. I hope that what I have written at least suggests the outlines of the exhilarating space of inquiry I believe it to be. If people are worried about intellectual vitality, it is because they have blinders on, either because they are looking in the wrong direction, as I have suggested, or because something else has gone wrong. (One is reminded of the philosopher Stanley Cavell's insight that the willingness to recognize others is a moral capacity.)

If I have accomplished something by recognizing this work, that will have been enough. Still, I would like to go one step further, to suggest a few ways in which the various strands described above can be brought together. What I say here might be totally stupid, and if that is the case, I would ask the reader not to hold it against all of the good works I have discussed above.  

It is striking that historians of science, technology, and business are all using some similar notions in their works, though this similarity has been too rarely examined. For instance, all three communities are talking about practices (or what business historians who are influenced by org theory sometimes call "routines"). Or put another way, there seems to be growing interest in the relationships between practices, heuristics, organizations, and strategic action. 

(An Aside: Regarding heuristics, one could think of Daston's recent discussions of the role of exemplars in scientific thought, which I describe on this blog here. Related: at Getting It Organized, a two-part conference on organizational routines at the Wharton Business School, Ann Johnson and Paul Nightingale got into a discussion of the role of proxies in science and engineering. We could equally add to this list the use proxies in economics and business management.)

With this emergent interest in some core notions, like practices, it seems as if there is an opportunity for workshops and mini-conferences to examine overlap between these communities and to search for new syntheses. This point is even more true if, as Hank and I have suggested on this blog over the last few years, there is growing desire in these communities to return to meso-level social analysis, including theories drawn from sociology.  In a piece I am currently writing on the history of automotive psychology from 1920 to 1955, I argue that the history of science has for too long focused either on the macro-level (for instance, at the level of shifts in umbrella notions like objectivity) or at the micro-level, in minute studies of scientific practices and that we need to put more emphasis on the meso-level. (Of course, Tom Misa made this same argument in his essay in Does Technology Drive History? in 1994.) In this piece on the history of psychology as well as in a long essay which I will probably never publish but which is available as a download on my personal webpage, leevinsel.com, I propose Fligstein and McAdam's A Theory of Fields as one meso-level theory that might help draw things together. 

The sense that some inter-sub-disciplinary synthetic breakthrough is just over the horizon is heightened by recent developments in the cultural history of business. More specifically, Ken Lipartito, who has been an advocate for cultural business history for years, delivered a paper, titled "Do Cultural History and Economic History Have Anything to Say to Each Other?", at the famous Johns Hopkins history seminar in October 2012. In that paper, Lipartito attempted to bridge the gap between these two distant communities, showing how the history of signs, practices, and experiences can inform the history of markets and firms. Since it was delivered, Lipartito's paper has been traveling samizdat-style in a shady underground circuit of business historians of a cultural bent. (No, sir, I will never ever tell who gave me my copy. Never ever!) To say the least, Lipartito's account brings business history much closer to where the history of science has been for sometime. (Which is not to say that business history only has things to learn from the history of science; the opposite is equally true.) 

This nearness between communities that I have attempted to describe—the use of similar notions, homologous perspectives, and isomorphic models—creates the kind of excited, suspenseful anticipation that leaves you trying to chew all of the fingernails on both of your hands . . . AT THE SAME TIME! 

Perhaps this new synthesis could be accomplished under the banner of the new History of Capitalism (HoC), but it needn't be done there, both because HoC has a lot of haters and because it might leave out important work, like Yulia Frumer's studies of non-capitalist Asian cultures. 

In this post, I attempted to outline some of the most exciting developments currently underway amongst the members of What-I-Will-Call-ics Anonymous in technology studies. I suggested that the scholars behind these developments are working in three spaces, in the sub-disciplinary intersections between SHOT and BHC and between SHOT and HSS and in a revisionary space focused on fundamental issues in the history of technology. I have also—probably foolishly—suggested some opportunities for collaboration and synthesis between all of these communities. In the next post, I will do two things: I will point to members of What-I-Will-Call-ics Anonymous who are working in other parts of science and technology studies, to further my argument that this is a general shift at hand, not just something idiosyncratic to technology studies. And I will make an argument—again, probably foolishly—for how we can foster this emerging intellectual movement, both by removing outmoded notions of "intellectual vitality" and by dedicating resources to the growth of WA.


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