Friday, October 14, 2005

Rereading SCOT

Documents and Technological Change: Rereading SCOT

There has been some talk about the performative role of documents: do they have agency? Do they have intentionality? I’m not sure, but I do have an idea for studying the phenomenon. Perhaps we should stop dying on the hill of documentation and launch a new salient towards technological structures in general.

One of the most popular –if not effective—approaches for studying the social implications of technology is SCOT: the Social Construction of Technology. I’ve addressed SCOT at length in other venues so I won’t rehash my views.

The basic premises of SCOT involve the “interpretive flexibility” of various communities that lead to the stabilization of particular technological forms. Many of the SCOT case studies involve some hard-core historiography conducted in dusty archives. Inevitably, all of these studies lead to a very similar conclusion. Basically, different social groups decide the stabilized form of an artifact in a rather Darwinian fashion.

What I (currently) find most interesting about SCOT is that each of these accounts involves a document of some kind. These documents are somehow deprecated in the ultimate account and given the status of a sort of detritus inevitably formed during the comings and goings of human actants. Documents are simply kipple (1).

A re-reading of the classic SCOT accounts indicates a different role for documents:

“Missile accuracy: A case study in the social processes of technological change,” by Donald MacKenzie

MacKenzie discusses the invention and engineering of inter-continental ballistic missile systems. The concept was revisited in his book Inventing Accuracy. While MacKenzie discusses many of the elements leading to the stabilization of the technological artifacts, he also mentions various documentary forms. Of particular interest are wallet-sized graphs used as rhetorical devices and the fundamental role of the RFP in stabilizing certain technologies. Were documentary practices more important for the resulting technology than the actual social practices?

Also of note is MacKenzie’s most recent work on the financial community and the Black-Scholes-Merton equation. I can’t discount the brilliance of these inventors or the performative nature of the actual equation that essentially defined the options trading industry. What sticks in my mind, however, are the little slips of papers that traders used in the pits to make their trades. The slips contained essential information such as optimum strike price. These humble documents seemed to have as much of a role as the actual equation!

“The evolution of large technological systems,” by Thomas P. Hughes

Hughes focuses on Edison’s ability to create a nation spanning electrical grid. In Edison we see a number of great attributes: he’s an able general, engineer, and business man. Hughes maintains that Edison was able to use these attributes to overcome the “reverse salients” hindering his projects. However, again we see the role of documents. His inventions existed in documentary form before they were realized as artifacts. Similarly, his business agreements, licenses, and leases only existed after being drafted and signed. From this reading, Edison’s ability was actually created through documents.

"Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering: the case of Portuguese expansion," by John Law

Finally, we have Law’s exploration of Portuguese expansion and the timely development of the caravel. Famously, Law articulates the notion of “heterogeneous engineering”: a bricolage-like concept that mandates that actants must address various factors so that a particular artifact can emerge. I wonder if this alignment necessarily requires documentation in the form of “genres,” “boundary objects,” or “standardized packages.” It would be particularly interesting to superimpose McGee’s research on naval architecture—and the role of documents in transforming this culture—onto Law’s account of the caravel. Once again, it may be that the document plays a vital role.

A rereading of the SCOT canon is in order for a few different reasons:
1) SCOT is getting stale. The concept is valuable but researchers need a way of breaking away from synthetic constructs like “social” and “community” toward rigorous “thick things” (to borrow Adler’s appropriation of Geertz) such as documents.
2) Documentation is a nascent field. As a David, the field needs to attach a Goliath and SCOT seems particularly appropriate.


(1) The concept of kipple is introduced in Phillip K. Dick’s novelette Do androids dream of electric sheep? The character J.R. Isidore explains the concept to Pris: “Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there's twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”

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