Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Why the History of Technology is Always Whiggish

My readings in historiography all seem to indicate that whiggishness is a very bad thing. There is seemingly nothing worse in the realm of history. Whiggishness refers to the teleology present in many works that explain history as an inevitable sequence of facts that result in the current glorious future. These accounts typically make heroes of rich white men while leaving other voices off the page. The accounts of the oppressed—financially, racially, socially—go unwritten. Fields such as LGBT and post-colonial studies have turned the focus of researchers to these groups.

Historical accounts of technology are particularly whiggish. But how can they not be? If our goal is to retell history from the perspective of a technology the account must necessarily be whiggish. All technology descends from earlier successful technology. Unsuccessful branches are ruthlessly pruned. The notion of oppressed technology is somewhat whimsical. I can't wait to read a retelling of the Tour de France from the perspective of a penny-farthing bicycle or reflections on authorship as written by a stained ink quill.
Documentation, Research, and Primary Materials

I have to admit that I'm intimidated by primary research. It seems inevitable that I will have to deal with some dusty basement filled with the archives of some sort of corporate or government operation. Langins, for example, spent a lot of time in the French military archives. Goodman did something similar with the Spanish resources and Slaton shifted her focus to the modern era and university archives on civil engineering.

Each of these researchers were studying a phenomenon other than the archives themselves. They were exploring issues of authority or communication, professionalization and the stabilization of technical artifacts. These authors were able to use the primary materials as a reflection of the phenomenon they were studying.

If the focus of our study is the documents themselves, we seem to be shit out of luck. There are very few meta-documents about the social interpretation of the documents that are the target of study. And this social interpretation is really what modern historiography is after. There are some meta-documents such as reviews but these things are likely only written for culturally (or financially) significant works. When it comes to pedestrian books such as handbooks we are faced with a distinctly more difficult task.

This problem seems to be a significant hurdle for documentation studies. If we shift our focus to the social or human realms that are representative of the phenomenon we are no longer within the sanctioned realm of library science; we have drifted to history, sociology, or anthropology. If we stick with interpreting the works we are in the world of english, theory and criticism, or even hermeneutics.

What's a researcher to do? How can we maintain a focus on documents and still be rigorous?
Phases of Engineering Development

I just finished reading Langins's Conserving the enlightenment. In short, it's a great book and belongs in the pantheon of works on the history of engineering by Picon and Verin. It's a particularly suitable companion to Picon's Architectes et ingénieurs au siècle des Lumières (although I'm only familiar with Thom's English translation). Langin addresses the military side of engineering while Picon covers the civil aspect. A good sequel to these works is Pfammatter's The making of the modern architect and engineer. Anyone interested the specialization of engineers might be interested in Calvert's The mechanical engineer in America, 1830-1910, Calhoun's The American civil engineer, or Slaton's--for more of a contemporary STS take--Reinforced concrete and the modernization of American building, 1900-1930.

Langins's history of fortification is very informative and illuminating, particularly his account of the ongoing conflict between Montalembert—a noble fortification dilettante—and the military corps of engineers. One particular thread runs throughout his book. It describes the evolution of a highly bureaucratic system of technical competency and its ongoing conflict with the forces of novelty. Langins cites Jean-Claude Éléonor Le Michaud d'Arçon:

"Grand ideas cost little; details kill." (pg. 404)

Langins study has led me to some thoughts on the nature of the evolution of large technical systems.

Phase I: Charisma.
The first phase of a technical system is the domain of the charismatic inventor-entrepreneur. It is also the domain of the charlatan. At this stage novelty is crucial and the inventor-entrepreneur must engage in aggressive marketing campaigns to establish a foothold in the market. Ramelli is a good example. His book of machines served as a means of marketing his skills to kings and regents.

Phase II: Trading Zone.
During the second phase the genres of communication begin to stabilize. There are formal processes--or at least expectations--for the exchange of ideas and the establishment of professional reputation.

Phase III: Bureaucracy.
The final stage is marked by the presence of bureaucracy. The focus of attention has shifted from novelty and design to overall costs and operations and maintenance. Distinct systems of training bureaucrats such as schools exist.