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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 641-668



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Essay

"All That Is Solid Melts into Air:" Historians of Technology in the Information Revolution

Rosalind Williams


"I hate traveling and explorers," declares Claude Lévi-Strauss at the outset of Tristes Tropiques. "Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions." With similar self-surprise, much as I dislike the reminiscences of university administrators, I find myself proposing to recount some of my own voyages in this realm. Five years ago, when I was offered the job of dean of students and undergraduate education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I found myself in an unusual and potentially fortunate situation. As a historian of technology, I realized that administrative duties at MIT would not necessarily divert me from my scholarship, but might even contribute to it. 1

There must be an easier way to do research, I have since decided, given the turmoil and even tragedy that have transformed MIT student life in the past five years. Nevertheless, my scholarly discoveries have been considerable. Participating in change at MIT has also transformed my understanding of engineering and technology.

As a historian of technology, I grew up with the distinctive concepts, vocabulary, and concerns of a discipline that emerged in the 1960s in close [End Page 641] relationship with the profession of engineering. Early historians of technology were typically men (I use the word deliberately) who had studied or even practiced engineering (like Thomas P. Hughes) or historians (like Melvin Kranzberg) closely involved in the education of engineers. Indeed, the very concept of a separate society for technological history emerged at a meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education. 2 Founding historians shared with engineers a cluster of seemingly self-evident assumptions. They assumed that "technology"--the grand, key concept--re-created the material world in ways that were useful to human progress. They assumed that technological activities were expressed above all in engineering. Finally, they assumed that most engineers were men who worked in industry using rational analysis to design useful things at the lowest cost.

My experiences as an MIT administrator have challenged these assumptions. In my decanal life, "technology" has no grandeur. Instead of embracing the totality of the human-built world, it just means "computers." Instead of being the driver of historical progress, technology is now driven by the market and in turn drives human beings as an unstoppable force. Engineers no longer have a monopoly on technology: all sorts of other people are in on the act. While the boundaries of the engineering profession have expanded dramatically, as a profession it has lost its self-conscious moral stance. Engineers are still busy trying to design things that are faster, cheaper, and smaller, but their mission is no longer necessarily associated with materiality, utility, rationality, industry, or historical progress.

This essay is an effort to understand the contrast between my scholarly and administrative lives. To be sure, viewing the history of technology through the lens of contemporary MIT raises evident epistemological issues. First, the academic view of engineering includes only a small part of the whole: much of what is conventionally thought of as engineering goes on in business and government rather than the academy. Second, contemporary changes in engineering practice and in concepts of technology have no obvious or necessary relevance to our understanding of the past.

The first limitation is one about which MIT is highly self-conscious. In discussing promotion and tenure decisions, we often asked ourselves whether the type of engineering done by the candidate was appropriate for a university, or whether it more properly belonged to industry. In not a few cases we concluded that the "real action" was taking place outside of academe. Awareness of this distinction between academic and nonacademic engineering is acute right now because of an uneasiness that the postwar trend to engineering science has made university-based engineering too distant from practice. In this period of readjustment there is grumbling on both sides of the divide. Science-based...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 641-668
Launched on MUSE
2000-10-01
Open Access
No
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