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What History Can Teach Us About Technology and Society
Stuart W. Leslie
An Odd Venue
San Jose might seem an odd venue for a meeting of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT). After all, Silicon Valley invents the future faster than historians can chronicle it. Is there anywhere else where the future means more, or history matters less, with the possible exception of Las Vegas? When everyone’s eye is on the “new, new thing,” who has time to consider the lessons of history? Even the Tech Museum celebrates future possibilities as much as past accomplishments. Who could have imagined how quickly San Jose, described so nostalgically in Burt Bacharach and Mel David’s 1968 pop classic as an escape from the frantic pace, false glitter and elusive riches of Los Angeles, would become a magnet for “fame and fortune” more powerful than Hollywood itself? By curious coincidence, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” topped the charts the same year Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce founded Intel. Their company, along with its successors, emulators, and competitors, created an industry and a culture that would make Silicon Valley somewhere you could find almost anything but “a lot of space,” “lots of friends,” and “some piece of mind.”
Silicon Valley essentially turned George Santayana’s famous aphorism on its head. Here, those who do not remember the past may not be able to repeat it. When history is measured by Moore’s Law and time to market, its larger lessons can be difficult to grasp. Less obviously, though no less importantly, Silicon Valley may end up redefining the practice as well as the subject of history. How we identify, gather, and study our sources, how we publish and archive our findings, how we collectively evaluate our research and writing, even how we decide what counts as history are being and will continue to be challenged by the emerging technologies of Silicon Valley. Indeed, like the chips that power the computers on which virtually all of us now write our histories, history itself may end up following an exponential curve toward ever larger integration, from the individual scholar, to small scale collaboration to very large scale integration to something like a networked system. So for a glimpse of how the future might shape the past, where better to look than the heart of Silicon Valley, where Santa Clara University hosted the October 2001 meeting of the Society for the History of Technology? The papers at the SHOT conference integrated foundational and new approaches to the study of the history of technology.
Historians of technology never claimed to have discovered networks, but they may have done more than any other subdiscipline to apply the idea as an analytical framework. Certainly Thomas Hughes’ influential Networks of Power, published a generation ago, provided a new vocabulary and a new set of tools for thinking about technological history. Though Hughes drew his examples from a detailed study of the emergence of electrical power systems in the US, the United Kingdom and Germany—networks in a strict technical sense—his major contribution was to chart a natural history of these networks and to show how a technical network could not be understood apart from the larger political, economic, and social networks with which it necessarily intersects.
Hughes can still be profitably read as a study in comparative regional history, but it was the promise of applying the idea of networks to other largescale technical systems that caught the historical imagination, especially among European scholars, many of whom had been independently working towards a similar concept from a sociological direction. The social construction of technology may have been heavily indebted to British sociologists of science seeking to undermine what they considered the privileged epistemological position and cultural authority of modern science. But where the social construction of science faced intense criticism from its own subjects, who emphatically denied that science was just another way of knowing, practicing engineers, notably Walter Vincenti, had long recognized that “What engineers know and how they know it,” to borrow the title of one of his books, embodied particular social circumstances and frames of reference. Consequently, appreciating the internal dynamics of technological networks in no way implied any sort of technological determinism, only that one choice, say alternating over direct current, had implications for future choices. Working out of a far more explicitly political paradigm, Paul Edwards opened up the Closed World: Consumers and the Political Discourse of Cold War America. His SHOT conference paper, “Thinking Globally: Computers, Networks, and the Construction of ‘Global’ Space(s)” aggressively pursues the implications of what he calls internetworks, networks of networks, for framing the contemporary history of technology.
From their very different perspectives, Hughes and Edwards demonstrate the power of studying system dynamics rather than individual components, whether military (Hughes considers the SAGE air defense system and the Atlas rocket in his latest book Rescuing Prometheus) or civilian (Hughes includes a chapter on Boston’s ill-starred Central Artery Tunnel, while Edwards is exploring global computer modeling). But other scholars would like to push the idea back, to see what it can tell us about the networks which preceded and in many ways anticipated modern “networks of power.” One obvious candidate is the international telegraph system, which journalist Tom Standage was bold enough to call The Victorian Internet. Historians, with characteristic caution and somewhat more appreciation for nuance, have generally resisted pushing that comparison too hard, but they have certainly explored telegraphy as a network.
Sometimes seeing the world from the periphery brings the center into better focus. British telegraphy literally set the standards, and has therefore attracted the most scholarly attention, notably from historians of imperialism such as Daniel Headrick. Yet even a small country such as Portugal, dependent as it was on the British system, could independently network its own overseas empire, as Ana Silva Paula’s SHOT conference paper suggests, by investing its limited resources in an unproven but ultimately cheaper and more flexible medium, radio. Swedish scholar Per Lundin, in turn, calls attention to Scandinavian efforts to integrate small national telegraph and later telecommunications systems into a Nordic network, though one ultimately hampered by continued state control in an era of globally driven competition. Arne Kaijser, who along with a number of collaborators, European and American, has organized an ambitious cross-Atlantic project, “Tensions of Europe: Technology in the Making of Twentieth-Century Europe,” considers these just two examples of how large technical systems open up opportunities for “crossing borders [and] linking systems,” which in turn encouraged new technical standards and political and regulatory protocols, just as the Internet is doing now. As impressive as the sheer geographical and chronological range of these studies is their shared commitment to theory, without letting it burden the history. If the history of technology suffers from “method envy,” it suffers in silence, so that the detail and texture of the stories are rarely lost in the search for order. Of course shared systems and shared information, as so many of us have learned the hard way, means new threats as well as new opportunities, a notion explored in Greg Downey’s paper on “Geographies of Data Security in the Information Age.” Perhaps the failures and bugs of early networks deserve as much attention as the successes.
The History of the Computer
Curiously enough, the history of computers has lagged behind the rest of the field historiographically, a point made some years back by Princeton historian Michael Mahoney in a review of the literature in the Annals of the History of Computing. He reprised that role as commentator in a SHOT session on “Computers, Ideologies and Technological Change,” one of several sessions devoted to computer history. Where once, as Mahoney complained, an obsession with hardware history and famous firsts tended to isolate computer history from the mainstream, this year’s papers demonstrated a welcome breadth and sophistication. Not so long ago, an entire session devoted to computers in Scandinavia would have been considered absurdly narrow. No longer, when nations of every size face the question of whether to buy or to build their own computer networks, and debate whether instant access to information will reinforce or erode traditional political authority.
George Orwell might well have predicted that Time would name the computer as “Man of the Year” in 1981, but could he have ever guessed that the famous cover would symbolize not the public face of Big Brother but the beginning of the personal computing revolution? Indeed, 1984 would be remembered as much for Apple’s famous Super Bowl advertisement, where Big Brother (Big Blue?) is brought down by one person of vision, initiative, and daring (Steve Jobs?) as for Orwell’s chilling, and by then long outdated, political prophesy. Fittingly, 1984 ended with Gorbachev’s famous speech on “glasnost,” or openness in public life, the first nail in Big Brother’s coffin. Gorbachev’s subsequent doctrine of “Perestroika” was intended to replace the USSR’s command economy with individual initiative and independence, virtually ensuring the collapse of the old order. Journalists have noted the importance of the personal computer and e-mail in the organization of China’s pro-democracy movement, which ended abruptly in the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989. How access to the Internet has shaped Chinese politics in the years since deserves thoughtful consideration.
Whatever role computers may have played in suppressing political dissent has been largely left to scriptwriters and movie directors, generally those with a conspiratorial leaning. Take “The Matrix,” “Enemy of the State” and “The Net.” Yet isn’t the popular paranoia they tap into as instructive as “Fail-Safe,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “On the Beach” and other nuclear nightmare classics? Here would seem to be a wonderful opportunity for historians of technology to learn from, and collaborate with, historians of popular culture, to provide something like Paul Boyer’s cultural history of the early atomic age for the early computer age. Eden Miller’s conference paper, “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile,” explicitly asks us to consider the paradox of how much freedom can be allowed if it has to be designed and regulated. That question could be profitably extended by a view from Asia, whether Japan, China, or Korea, where computer culture may assume new if yet unexplored patterns. National boundaries and political agendas still matter in a networked world. The question is how? Recall that in its day, the telegraph also was hailed as the harbinger of world peace and global understanding, though as Headrick and other scholars have shown, it more often served as a tool of imperial reach and control.
Networks of Power
Certainly historians of technology have taken up sociologist Theda Skocpol’s call for “bringing the state back in,” no surprise given the role of the nation state in creating the original networks of power. While historians of timekeeping such as Otto Mayer have noted how the mechanical clock served as the perfect metaphor of the absolutist state, much more could be said about how the technologies of surveying, mapmaking, road building, and technical education, among others, consolidated the political and economic power of the early modern state. A SHOT session on “Impositions of Order” hinted at the possibilities, a perfect example being a study by Chandra Mukerji of the building of the Canal du Midi in 17th century France. Hakon With Anderson’s paper, in a session on “Factories and Workers in Early Industrial Europe,” asked from the Norwegian perspective whether the factory should be seen as the “prolongation” of an 18th century idea or a “precursor” of the 20th century. Simply asking the question that way invites some reflection on the often hidden continuities between the early modern and the modern world. If French public works demonstrate the power of the technocratic state, the 19th century British textile factory symbolizes an industrial revolution superintended by a nation of shopkeepers, as Napoleon famously dismissed them. We would call them entrepreneurs, and say they were creating the modern market economy. Napoleon, after all, cribbed his quip from Adam Smith. Yet Lindy Biggs’s exploration of child labor in those British mills is only possible because of state inquiry and record keeping, suggesting that the state could at least chronicle, if not always correct, the worst abuses of what must be understood as one node in an increasingly global network of extraction, production, distribution and consumption. Although papers on technology and the colonial experience were less prominent in San Jose than at recent meetings, a history of land reform in Syria under the French administration, by Toby Jones, reminds us that the networks of power begun at home could be ruthlessly extended abroad.
Judging from such sessions as “State-Spon-sored Technologies of Power and Modernity,” “Technology, Ideology and State Power,” and “The Technocratic State and Its Critics,” Lewis Mumford’s fears, so eloquently expressed in The Pentagon of Power and shared by Jacques Ellul in The Technological System, continue to haunt the history of technology. What has changed is an increasing attention to grassroots rather than intellectual resistance. Russell Olwell’s account of the “downwinders,” workers, and public health advocates at the Hanford Nuclear Facility and Gregory Field’s study of popular fears about water fluoridation give voice to ordinary people willing to take direct action in the face of official denial and reassurance. It turns out that “What’s Public About Public Works,” to borrow another session title, are citizens willing to organize themselves to fight for their perceived interest. Would-be architects of future public works projects could learn something from the trials of their predecessors, who found it difficult to understand why otherwise sensible people might oppose, say, the construction of the Washington Metro, detailed in a paper by Zachary Schrag, or bridges and boulevards for East Los Angeles, as recounted by Matthew Roth.
On the other hand, policy makers with a taste for power could profitably study how Robert Moses brought prominent politicians to heel, and ground ordinary citizens under his heel, to drive his endless expressways through the boroughs of New York City, a tragedy told with such force and passion by Robert Caro. Sadly, Caro’s magnificent biography, The Power Broker, will be out of print long before Moses’s roads are out of commission. Yet, small dramas still matter to those with something to lose, whether control over rural electrification (Kendra Smith) or local standard time (Shane Hamilton). What’s especially striking in these cases is how a growing network runs up against, and ultimately subsumes, long-standing local cultures and traditions. Hughes has described this as technological momentum, though more often than not (think again of Robert Moses), raw political or economic power decides the outcome.
At the heart of the matter is whether democratic or local power is any match for well-funded and well-connected systems builders. Can sufficient political will alter the trajectory of well-established systems? History rarely lends itself to controlled experiments, and one of the few we may get is the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, where bigger was almost always considered better and where central control was the governing philosophy. The fate of former Soviet technological systems—irrigation and agriculture, mining and metallurgy, military and space—provides an exceptional opportunity to study what happens to such a system under stress, or under a different political regime, as in the newly independent republics. Per Hogseluius’s account in his conference paper of how Estonia has grappled with the legacy of Soviet telecommunications and energy supply systems offers an important step in the right direction.
An increasingly important point of connection between the history of technology and other fields and disciplines has been environmental history. A new special interest group, Envirotech, made its debut at the San Jose meeting. Its size, and the number of papers which addressed technology and ecology from different perspectives, suggest that this will become a major historiographical theme for the future. That should be no surprise, given the number of environmental histories already part of SHOT’s canon, such as Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl and Rivers of Empire, Ted Steinberg’s Nature, Incorporated, and Carolyn Merchant’s Ecological Revolutions, to name a few.
Two relatively recent books, William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, on the mutual shaping of Chicago and its hinterland, and Richard White’s Organic Machine:The Remaking of the Columbia River, imaginatively apply what might arguably be called a network approach. Here nature is not somehow apart from the man-made world, but instead constructed, mentally and physically, through human understanding and intervention. In the spirit of White’s book, Sara Pritchard, one of Envirotech’s co-founders, presented “State of Nature: Redesigning the Rhone River, 1945-1955,” and one can easily envision virtually endless variation on this theme. In history, as in architecture, God is in the details. So applying White’s model to the Volga or Cronon’s model to Hunan would not be so much a test of their methods as an invaluable extension of their insights. Envirotech’s other cofounder, Jim Williams, recently published Energy and the Making of Modern California, a timely study that directly connects networks of power to issues of energy choice and environmental impact. One of Cronon’s achievements in Nature’s Metropolis was to set the rise of the modern city into a wider network of commodities, lumber, wheat, and livestock. Yet what we don’t see and what we take for granted, including the basics—food and water—are also essential foundations of the modern urban infrastructure, a point brought home in a paper on “the piped city” in 19th century Sweden by Jonas Hallstrom and a study of Dutch food retailing by Babette Sluijter.
Technology and Gender
Another SHOT topic, where historians of technology have actually been leaders rather than followers, has been in gender studies. Women in Technology History (WITH) is SHOT’s oldest, largest, and perhaps liveliest special interest group, and was wellrepresented in San Jose with sessions on “Technologies for Materializing The Gendered Body,” including a prize-winning paper on the history of tampons, and “Women and the Boundaries of Engineering,” addressing engineering education (Amy Sue Bix), the municipal housekeeping movement (Pam Mack) and women engineers and feminism (Ruth Cowen, one of WITH’s founding mothers). But women in technological history are no longer confined to particular sessions, as they were a generation ago. These days, whatever the subject, it seems hard not “Imagining the Technology of Feminine Spaces,” to borrow Rosanne Welker’s title. All three papers in “Explorations in Labor History,” for example, put gender front and center, whether in the department store (Sarah Johnson), the office (Dephine Gardey) or the shipyard (Christopher Tassava).
Influence of Consumers
The study of consumers and consumption offers another emerging theme with close connections to other fields of history. Regina Blaszczyk’s Imaging Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning provides one model for drawing our attention to how changing taste shaped design and production in an industry closely associated with the household, while Tom Misa’s book offers a fresh take on an old story by shifting focus from the makers to the users, in this case commercial consumers. In this light, everyday objects like a desk chair, a history recounted by Lara Tauritz, provide a text as rich as any document, defined by context, open to interpretation, and embedded in a web of social, cultural and economic networks. As Henry Petroski has demonstrated with the pencil and Robert Friedel with the zipper, stories of the ordinary can be quite extraordinary and revealing. Who can imagine a world without zippers? The pencil, of course, will disappear as soon as the paperless office arrives.
A New Challenge
Today’s historians of technology face the daunting prospect of identifying and preserving a bewildering variety of digital documents, images, and artifacts that will provide the essential raw materials for their successors. Nowhere is that more challenging than in Silicon Valley, where companies, people, artifacts, indeed entire languages can disappear as fast as a bad website. What should be kept, and in what kind of format so that future historians can make sense of it? Who can still read an original floppy disk these days? Even if someone figures out where to store all those e-mails, who will ever have time to catalog and read them? And what about the artifacts? Silicon Valley’s garages undoubtedly contain some classics of the computer age but will anyone bother to restore old Atari’s and Apple II’s with the same affection as Model T’s and Packard’s?
Stanford, sensibly enough, has taken the lead in collecting the history of Silicon Valley, and its SiliconBase project (http://www-sul.stanford.edu/ siliconbase) provides some state-of-the-art thinking about preserving history in the making. Its MouseSite, for example, allows readers to explore the history of Doug Engelbart’s now ubiquitous invention on their own, with remarkable graphics, archival documents, interviews and other original materials. (http:// sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite/MouseSite) This may well be the shape of things to come. The SiliconBase team, led by Stanford historian Tim Lenoir, readily acknowledges the importance of including more than Silicon Valley’s greatest hits and misses, the might have beens and the never weres.
Getting beyond the usual suspects may require fresh approaches, and here the Center for New Media Studies at George Mason University, an acknowledged leader in using the Internet for traditional American history (http://historymatters.gmu.edu) has taken a serious look at “exploring and collecting the recent history of science and technology online.” Associate directors Jim Sparrow and Dan Cohen talked about their Blackout History Project (http:// chnm.gmu.edu/blackout/main.html), which has been asking utility company employees and ordinary New Yorkers to share their recollections of the 1965 and 1977 blackouts online, to create an electronic archive. Some of the contributions have been surprisingly rich and candid. Funded by the Sloan Foundation, “Science and Technology in the Making” supports several other projects, including the MouseSite and David Kirsch’s Electric Vehicle History Online, a web site aimed at documenting what owners, drivers, and enthusiasts of electric cars have to say. (http:// sloan.stanford.edu/EVonline/) Kirsch’s recent book, The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History, explains the demise of the electric car as a systems failure, a point overlooked by scholars who have merely compared cars to cars without considering their respective, though overlapping, technosystems. With his web site, Kirsch is both recapturing a lost history and creating a new network that could conceivably become a political constitutency. Potentially, at least, the Internet offers a chance for democratizing history on a scale not attempted since the ambitious oral history and documentary projects of the New Deal, even if Sparrow and Cohen’s experience suggests that a “build a web site and they will come” philosophy rarely succeeds on its own.
Perhaps the Internet will not foster the kind of intense personal collaboration behind Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The tradeoff, however, will be scholarly collaboration on a scale just now being glimpsed in efforts like History Matters, where primary sources of all types—manuscripts, photographs, government statistics, newspapers—along with interpretive guides, teaching aids, bibliographies, references, even sample student projects, are compiled and refined by a community of learners ranging from middle schoolers to the finest practitioners of the craft.
At its best, networked history will complement and supplement traditional history, while creating new possibilities for its display. In their presentation, “Weaving the Once and Future Web: Comparative Telecommunications History in Public Space at the National Library of Medicine,” Hunter Crowther-Heyck and Michael Sappol offered a sample of how the history of the Web can be told on the Web, as well as in more conventional exhibit spaces. Obviously, a virtual exhibit cannot always show the scale and texture or explain the workings of an artifact as effectively as a traditional museum display, any more than a photograph of the Sistine Chapel can capture its full palette and grandeur. On the other hand, the virtual exhibit can reach a global audience, juxtapose images and artifacts in imaginative ways, and let visitors choose their own pace and direction. They can even leave to explore related sites and sources, and then return whenever they like. What would otherwise be literal footnotes now become portals to other nodes of the network. Marshall McLuhan’s global village seems to have arrived, if not exactly the way he envisioned it, perhaps, still a village where its storytellers have opportunities to gather, interpret, and teach its histories, limited only by their collective vision and imagination and bandwidth.
The SHOT Conference included more than three dozen sessions with more than 150 presentations. For more information about SHOT, the 2001 conference, and upcoming conferences, please see the SHOT web page at http://shot.jhu.edu. •
James Agee. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1960).
Annals of the History of Computing (New York:
Regina Lee Blaszczyk. Imaging Consumers: Design
and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).
Robert Caro. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and
the Fall of New York (New York: Knopf, 1974).
William Cronon. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and
the Great West (New York: Norton, 1991).
Paul N. Edwards. The Closed World (Cambridge,
Mass: MIT Press, 1997).
Jacques Ellul. The Technological System (New York:
Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda
Skocpol. Bringing the State Back In (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1985).
Robert Friedel. Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty
(New York: W.W. Norton, 1994).
Daniel R. Headrick. The Tools of Empire: Technology
and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).
Thomas Hughes. Networks of Power: Electrification
in Western Society: 1880-1930 (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1983).
Thomas P. Hughes. Rescuing Prometheus (New York:
David A. Kirsch, The Electric Vehicle and the Burden
of History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University
Carolyn Merchant. Ecological Revolutions: Nature,
Gender, and Science in New England (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1989).
Stuart W . Leslie is Secretary of the
Society for the History of Technology
and professor of the history of technology
at The Johns Hopkins University.
He has written a biography of automotive
engineer and tycoon Charles
Kettering and a history of MIT and
Stanford during the Cold War. He is
currently completing a study of regional
development and decline in the US and
abroad, and beginning a project, Beyond
Point Four, on the role of science
and engineering in post war American
Thomas J. Misa, A Nation of Steel: The Making of
Modern America: 1865-1925 (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1995).
Lewis Mumford. The Pentagon of Power. (New York:
Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1970).
Henry Petroski. Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance
(New York: Knopf, 1992).
Thomas Standage. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable
Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth
Century’s On-line Pioneers (New York: Walker and
Theodore Steinberg. Nature Incorporated: Industrialization
and the Waters of New England (Cambridge,
England: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
James C. Williams. Energy and the Making of Modern
California (Akron: University of Akron Press,
Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking
of the Columbia River (New York: Hill and Wang,
Donald Worster. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in
the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).
Donald Worster. Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and
the Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon,