Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) ix-x
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In This Issue
To begin in the middle: We are happy to have the opportunity to publish in this issue two comments on Edward Constant's April 1999 article "Reliable Knowledge and Unreliable Stuff: On the Practical Role of Rational Beliefs," one by Philip Scranton ("Missing the Target?"), the other by John Law and Vicky Singleton ("Performing Technology's Stories"). Together with Constant's response ("Performance Is a Moving Target, Reliably") they constitute a broad-based methodological discussion that can be read on two levels. As a conversation about the proper intellectual object for the history of technology, they offer a multipartite conversation about method. At the same time, all three explore the relationship between the world of human artifice and the cognitive acts of interpretation by which humans try to make sense of artifice. In his 1999 article Constant drew on Bayesian inference to argue in favor of "recognition of the existence and practical importance of reliable knowledge and Bayesian rational belief in it," tempering social constructivist accounts of technological change. Scranton questions the linguistic precision and accuracy of Constant's interpretation of social constructivist practice. Drawing on a variety of recent epistemological and sociological scholarship, he argues the situated nature of all bodies of knowledge, including those adduced in Constant's article as evidence of virtually universal laws governing engineering practice. Approaching Constant's argument from quite a different direction, Law and Singleton argue that all stories, certainly technological stories, perform in precisely the same way that technologies perform: the way a technology is designed makes a difference in the world, as does the way a technological interpretation is constructed. They apply this principle in particular to Constant's idea of what it means to say that a technology "works" or "doesn't work."
This sketch hardly does justice to the richness of these three comparatively short contributions. In the best tradition of the academy, they offer an intelligent and civil example of the principle that reasonable people can disagree. Read without the footnotes this exchange is an illuminating case of different perspectives in creative tension; read with the footnotes it provides the best introduction to pertinent bodies of theoretical scholarship--epistemological, sociological, historical--ever found in these pages.
The reader may wish to read the exchange between Scranton, Law, Singleton, and Constant in conjunction with Rosalind Williams's "'All That Is Solid Melts into Air': Historians of Technology in the Information Revolution." Williams, a historian of technology whose work is well known to T&C readers, recently stepped down as dean of students and undergraduate education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--in some respects at least a singularly fortunate situation for a historian of technology to have found herself in. This essay is, as she puts it, "an effort to understand the contrast between my scholarly and administrative lives." In the course of these exceptionally clear-eyed and wide-ranging reflections on the past, present, and future of the history of technology, Williams also questions social constructivist practice--for different reasons than Constant's--and her call for a fresh look at determinism may evoke its own set of responses in these pages. The serendipitous arrival of these manuscripts at the office suggests at least the possibility that we might be approaching some breakthrough moment for the history of technology, a move past the deconstructive moment where case studies of messy complexity challenge the master narrative of modernism. Perhaps Williams's observation that "In the history of technology, passion serves an epistemological purpose" points the way.
Yakup Bektas's "The Sultan's Messenger: Cultural Constructions of Ottoman Telegraphy, 1847-1880" concerns an earlier information revolution. No other nineteenth-century technology, writes Bektas, "inspired the Ottoman world as deeply and widely" as the telegraph: it was at once the promise of new physical and intellectual frontiers, a "vast apparatus [End Page ix] of social and cultural experimentation," and, not least, a symbol of the sultan's authority and power. As was the case in China and Japan, the development of the telegraph in the Ottoman empire proceeded...