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  • Our Technological Age, from the Inside Out
  • Rosalind Williams (bio)

From Context to Big Questions

The spirit of come-one-come-all has long pervaded our fair society. It is evident in the warm hospitality of our annual meetings, in the carefully chosen title of our journal Technology and Culture, and in founding father Melvin Kranzberg’s tireless invocation of the “contextual history of technology” without specifying any limits or rules as to what context might include.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that at times I feel like an imposter among my friends and colleagues here. I may come from a family of engineers, but I myself majored in a combined history and literature program as an undergraduate, wrote a senior thesis on Methodist hymns and Romantic poetry, got a doctorate in intellectual history, avoided math and science courses, never took a course in the history of technology, and never studied with a historian of technology.

The ways I have pursued the history of technology work around these embarrassing deficiencies and all too obviously display my apparently unrelated obsessions. Consequently, being awarded the da Vinci Medal feels like an out-of-body experience: this can’t be happening to me! My great pleasure and privilege is to accept this medal on behalf of all SHOT members who also wonder if they belong here. If the society so honors me, then it reaffirms that the SHOT tent is bigger and stronger than ever, and that your deficiencies and obsessions are still welcome here. The remarks that follow are intended to promote such inclusion by suggesting that some humanistic obsessions—notably consciousness and language—do not necessarily result in weak versions of the history of technology but in different and arguably sometimes stronger versions. [End Page 461]

A generation ago, in the early 1990s, SHOT’s generous spirit of inclusion gave rise to a debate about contextualism that has never really reached a conclusion, and probably never should. It arose from the publication in 1988 of an edited volume titled In Context: History and the History of Technology—Essays in Honor of Melvin Kranzberg, edited by Stephen Cutcliffe and Robert Post and published upon Mel’s retirement by Lehigh University Press. Three years later, in 1991 (the wheels of the academy can turn slowly), my MIT colleague Leo Marx published a review of the book in the pages of Technology and Culture. At the end of the first paragraph, Leo rather disingenuously raised what he claimed to consider a simple question: What is the rationale for distinguishing the history of technology from history? More generally, what is the rationale for distinguishing specialized histories from general history?

Leo Marx was not arguing that technology is unimportant in history. On the contrary, he was arguing that it is so pervasive and influential that it cannot be bracketed off as a special category in the same way that, say, the history of music, or of mathematics, or even the history of science, could be so distinguished. The boundaries of technology are unusually obscure, he proposed, for there is no human activity that does not involve it: “If we grant the claims of the contextualists, how can we justify segregating the history of technology … from the history of the societies and cultures that shape it?”1 Broadening the concept of technology to that of “technological systems,” as had been done in the 1980s, only underscored (in Leo’s view) the lack of a rationale for making this a specialized inquiry. He quoted a remark made by Mel Kranzberg: “We call ours a ‘technological age.’ … How did it get that way? That indeed is the major question that the history of technology attempts to answer.”2

Leo agreed with the centrality of the question. He did not, however, accept Mel’s tacit assumption that its answer would be found in artifacts or processes commonly referred to as technological. Instead, Leo claimed, the most respected scholars who had taken up this question—he listed among others Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, and Thomas Parke Hughes—were open to the possibility that the answer lay in “a culturally nurtured propensity to mechanize as many aspects of life as possible.” Marx...


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pp. 461-476
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