Innovation, Technology, or History: What is the Historiography of Technology About?
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Innovation, Technology, or History
What is the Historiography of Technology About?

Our brief in this symposium is to look at "both the continuing significance of some long-lived patterns in the scholarship of this field, and the importance of newer emergent trends and themes," particularly in relation to "big questions that scholars—not just historians—might ask about technology, culture, and the world." Bruce Seely further asked us for "insights about where historians of technology and the Society should be directing their scholarship and activities in the years ahead." This is a tall and problematic order: what exactly is the field we should be considering, since the study of technology is clearly not confined to self-proclaimed historians of technology? How can we even begin to give a picture of its accomplishments? Indeed, ought we not distrust narratives that purport to tell us where the historiography (and other studies) of technology has been, is, and is going? Furthermore, should we not bear in mind that exhortations that fields are shifting or ought to shift to one particular method, problem, or period often repress rather than stimulate novelty, and reflect a narrowing of conversation and debate, perhaps inevitable in diverse fields, but no less regrettable for that? In this essay I hope to avoid some of these problems by asking an even bigger prior question: what is the history of technology (in [End Page 680] many different guises, and in many different modes) the history of? What, in practice, is meant by technology in histories, and what is meant by history in histories of technology? Our thinking about technology, and indeed our thinking about the historiography of technology, is, I suggest, uncritically focused on some, but not all, novelties.

In the last generation, public policies in the United States, Europe, and the rest of the rich world have placed enormous rhetorical emphasis on the need for increased "innovation," which has been reflected in increased institutional support for implicitly instrumentally useful social and historical studies of technological change.1 In the historiography of technology too there has been a strong focus on novelty, on radical breaks with the past. We in the academy are supposed to have got past unreflexive progress-talk, and are now (in theory, and in Theory) eclectic, playful with time, and open to the marginal. But, in historiographical pronouncements that introduce and summarize new work, a very old-fashioned and narrow progressivism is prevalent.2 Authors invoke the specter of a darkly ignorant past, an enlightenment in "recent years" (embellished with a citation to a work decades old), and a contemporary revolution. They attack paper tigers like "whig history," "technological determinism," and "linear models" as if they were made of scholarly living flesh and bone. For example, in 2003 technological determinism could still be described as a "fast-dying horse," when it was surely either never alive, long dead, or, to labor the point, the slowest dying horse in the annals of veterinary science.3 From its creation in the 1980s till today, the "linear model" is attacked despite having been an object of attack from its very creation. Such caricaturing of analysts of the past has led to the caricaturing of what happened in the past, for example giving the impression that the linear model was central to belief about and policy for science and technology in recent times.4

In the academy, as in technology and in politics, novelty-mongering does not necessarily reflect novelty, much less progress. During the 1980s [End Page 681] historians of technology were invited to embrace, as a supposed novelty, applied sociology of scientific knowledge—although this meant applying to science what was already known about technology/politics/history, as well as embodying the view (explicitly rejected by many historians of technology) that technology is applied science.5 While this approach (SCOT, in shorthand) did open up new questions for some historians of technology, others were already alert to alternatives, to paths not taken, to the reality that not all change is progress, and to an understanding that the invocation of theory is not in itself a sign of methodological or historiographical sophistication.6 Other approaches taken to...