The Lantern-Bearers of the history of technology

Rosalind Williams
2013 History & Technology  
Historians of technology need to focus more on studying human experiences of technological change rather than technological objects. Aesthetic debates over "realism" and "romance" in the later nineteenth century suggest that greater attention to the inward world of lived experience can enhance our understanding of historical experience. The well-known writer Robert Louis Stevenson experimented with a variety of new forms of romance to write about contemporary events in the South Seas with
more » ... uth Seas with primary attention to inward experiences of technological change, as opposed to accounts of technological objects. Introduction: In general, historians of technology are not big on subjectivity. This subfield of history, now almost sixty years old, emerged from the conviction that more attention should be paid to objects made and used by humans. In the first generation, the rallying cry was to "open the black box," to study the design, construction, and operation of machines, tools, instruments, and other useful artifacts. In the second generation, the call was for "context," defined as social, economic, political, military, cultural and other components of the historical setting of the black box. In the words of founding father Melvin Kranzberg, for historians of technology "truly to understand our technological age," they need to study machines both "internally and externally-that is to say contextually." 1 The third generation emphasized external forces even more, advocating the study of the "social construction" of the box. As the adjective "social" suggests, constructivism directs attention more to behavior, especially aggregate behavior, than to the subjective experience. Indeed, the methodology of the actor network makes a virtue of putting conscious and non-conscious agents on the same level. Pasteur and the bacterium are not at all equally capable of subjective experience, but in an actor network they are equally agents. It is not that historians of technology study things rather than humans. From the start they have studied individuals and groups who invent, innovate, and build devices and systems, with special attention to heroic engineers and teams who create or even give soul to new machines. More recently users, consumers, maintainers, and enthusiasts, among others, have been recognized for their active roles in the history of technology. However, attention to subjectivity has not been a significant part of the subfield. Historians of technology may argue whether artifacts have politics, but the common assumption remains that careful attention to artifacts is what defines
doi:10.1080/07341512.2013.858521 fatcat:4icvf5a6bfaudkepzj4mbkxcbu