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.


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