I spent last weekend in Albuquerque, at the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) annual meeting. On the way from the airport to my motel, the cab driver took me on an unsolicited “Breaking Bad” tour of the city. We saw the motel where lots of drug deals went down in the show (and, he noted, in real life.) We skirted the parking garage that was the site of a significant plot development. We waved hello to Jesse Pinkman’s house.
In the spirit of my cab ride, here’s an ad hoc excursion through a few things that went on over the weekend.
SHOT conferences are super-fun – a delightful mixture of community love, whimsy, critique, and calls for social and political engagement. All of these were on display in various conference happenings organized around the leifmotif of “maintenance.”
To state the obvious: the loudest public voices of technology today tend to be emphatically unhistorical. New gadgets are pathbreaking “disruptive innovations.” There’s lots of speculation on how technology will change the world (technological determinism!), little attention to the world that shaped the technology, and even less reflection on the patterns of culture and power that the technology bears inside itself. Many popular histories of technology map this perspective on to the past: through unprecedented leaps of insight, iconoclast geniuses assemble the components of the contemporary technical world.
As a counterweight to this master narrative, historian of auto safety (and AmericanScience alum) Lee Vinsel urged historians of technology to set aside “the innovators” and their “digital revolution” (as Walter Isaacson characterized the protagonists and object of his recent history of the computer and the internet). Vinsel suggested focusing instead on infrastructure and its “maintainers”: those who have sustained and repaired the technologies that structure lived experience and provide the conditions of possibility for those flashy, visible innovations. The technological past is a foreign country, and we’re living in its temples and ruins.
Stay tuned for more on “non-innovation studies,” including a workshop scheduled for this coming spring.
My favorite session featured four talks on collaborations between engineers and artists during the 1960s and 70s. Andrew Nelson (in absentia), Patrick McCray, Peter Sachs Collopy, and Dawna Schuld presented on, respectively, the development of computer music at Stanford, the commercialization of avant-garde art-engineering collaborations, the emergence of a community of videographers who didn’t think of themselves as artists or engineers but were treated as both, and experiments by two artists and a psychologist (plus a bunch of invisible technicians) to produce art in which experience itself was the object.Matt Wisnioski tied all of these talks together with a few reflections on the rising tide of art and science studies. In Wisnioski’s opinion, the increasing scholarly attention to these collaborations of the mid-late 20th century can be tied to the numerous contemporary projects and programs in design, making, and so forth that are their legacy. He laid out a three-stage schema of the recent history of art and technology: (1) a 60s-70s period of crossing well defined professional boundaries between art and engineering, characterized by a feeling of optimism suceeded by a sense of failure; (2) a 1980s period of innovation-oriented, corporate-funded studies of design, typified by the MIT Media Lab; (3) from the late 90s on, an emphasis on coordination among multiple sites of disciplinary expertise.
In a session entitled “Other(ed) epistemologies of the technological,” presenters used the history of technology as a means of moving beyond categories of the colonial and racial subject to examine the lives of people typically classified in such ways as intellectual agents.
Clapperton Mavhunga presented on the manufacture of poisoned arrowheads among the San people of southern Africa as a technical practice embedded in what was simultaneously a philosophy of technology and a cultural and spiritual practice.
Pablo Gómez detailed technological traditions for long-distance communication and self-protection that have been developed for hundreds of years among groups living in the mountains of Colombia, complementing and sometimes supplanting such technologies as body armor and satellite phones.
Mhoze Chikowero discussed how radio, introduced by British officials into colonial Africa as a technology of soft power, was appropriated and adapted by “organic intellectuals” as a means for coordinating guerilla resistance to the colonial administration.
Tisha Hooks addressed the films of the African-American documentary filmmaker Reverend Solomon Sir Jones, who documented African-American social life in Oklahoma during the early 20th century. Notwithstanding the infamous contemporaneous work of D.W. Griffiths, Hooks argued that the movie camera could be used in different ways to represent race in early twentieth century America.
Something about the environment and compu(ting)
At the Sunday morning meeting of SIGCIS, SHOT’s computing interest group, the historian of computing Nathan Ensmenger gave a wonderful précis of his current project on the global environmental history of computing and the internet.
Ensmenger pulled together a diverse array of stories about the historical background and environmental stakes of digital artifacts and practices that seem to float untethered from the industrial past or the material world: the energy and water consumption of server farms, the high-intensity use of electricity that underwrites Bitcoin block-chaining as a digital technology of trust, the strata of nineteenth century transportation and communications infrastructure on which the Internet backbone was built, the global mining operations that extract metals for microelectronics, the fate of electronic waste.
Ensmenger’s overall point: digital technologies that are often portrayed as (or just assumed to be) relatively clean, costless, and liberated from entrenched infrastructures – the “cloud” and the like – are just as connected to the environment and to human technological history as are more obviously material technological systems. Digital freedom isn’t free.
- W. Bernard Carlson, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age
- Christopher F. Jones, Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America
- Rebecca Slayton, Arguments that Count: Physics, Computing, and Missile Defense, 1949-2012
Robinson prize (best first-time talk):
- Winner: Sarah McLennan (William & Mary), “Computing and the Color Line: Race, Gender, and Opportunity in Early Computing at NASA”
- Honorable mention: Heidi Hauss (Princeton), “Setting the Record Straight: The Invention of Mechanical Limbs in Sixteenth-Century Europe”