- In This Issue
In August of 2007, the editorial team noticed a number of manuscripts about water technologies coming over the transom in just a few months. Then more manuscripts arrived. Our instinct—that the serendipity represented by this uncoordinated and unplanned influx of articles is an especially telling one—is borne out both by the thematic insights found in this collection of articles and by the encouraging scholarly trends in the history of technology that the July issue demonstrates in microcosm.
So what’s going on? Is it something in the water? Without presuming to identify the motivations of our authors, these articles do resonate powerfully with recent events, as water has been in the news increasingly over the past several years. Indeed, as this issue goes to press, dramatic flooding has affected both the Pearl River in South China and the Mississippi River in the United States, devastating communities large and small on opposite sides of the world; a serious drought threatens famine for the Horn of Africa and serious problems for California; and the city of Barcelona has been forced to ship in drinking water and rests its hopes for the future on a desalinization plant, meant to come online within the next few years. Of course, water is often in the news—it is, after all, crucial to human life. Yet changing climate patterns, mobile and in some places growing populations, the growth of water-hungry industry and agriculture, as well as the desire to expand hydropower have unsettled taken-for-granted sociotechnical systems of water management, putting water squarely at the center of public attention. From humble cisterns to monumental dams, water technologies are under increasing scrutiny, as actors rethink historic commitments, the ethics of water use, and the needs of changing societies. In his introductory essay for this issue, Martin Reuss explores the theme of social negotiation that runs through these articles, comparing the nature and significance of the process across cultures and time periods and encouraging us to think more about the technical expert as negotiator. As we might expect, technical actors and governing authorities play a key role here, but Reuss also shows the role that collective memories of past practices (accurate or not) play in these histories. Remembering the past is a centrally important activity in the social renegotiation of water use.
What is especially striking about July’s articles is their temporal and geographical distribution. The eras examined range from medieval times to the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Geographically, the articles examine stories from Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, making this very likely the first time that a single issue of Technology and Culture has published articles from four continents. The unplanned nature of this issue highlights an encouraging scholarly trend in the history of technology. As a profession, we have started to address two longstanding historiographic problems: the largely U.S. and European focus of much history of technology (and a fairly small slice of Europe at that) and our collective emphasis on the modern era. The historiography of technology, as rich, vital, and exciting as it is, has never been sufficiently diverse in either time or place to narrate a truly global history of technological change. In recent years, however, this has started to change. As the profession continues to grow and spread, new and expanding scholarship on Africa, Asia, the neglected areas of Europe and the Mediterranean basin, the Middle East, and Latin America gives us the opportunity to challenge both the narratives of technological change that inform undergraduate surveys and our own assumptions about what matters. We may find fresh ways to link the modest usefulness of the digging stick to the complexity of the jet engine without doing a disservice to either, incorporating, but not being overwhelmed by, the industrial revolution and European and North American experiments in modernity. We are not suggesting that historians of technology should pursue what Bill Storey once referred to as “weak multiculturalism,” where diversity [End Page a] is an end in itself, and marginalized countries and eras get center stage only as representatives of the marginal. Rather, it is a call to reconsider how we have...