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Technology and Culture 43.3 (2002) 649-651



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Book Review

Technologies of Power:
Essays in Honor of Thomas Parke Hughes and Agatha Chipley Hughes


Technologies of Power: Essays in Honor of Thomas Parke Hughes and Agatha Chipley Hughes. Edited by Michael Thad Allen and Gabrielle Hecht. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001. Pp. xx+339. $24.95.

"We have understood for centuries that technology is an instrument of power" (p. 1). So opens this important collection of essays. Yet only in recent years have historians begun fully to appreciate the mutually constitutive domains of the technical and the social. Among the intellectual leaders in recognizing the simultaneous interactive shaping of technology and society have been Tom Hughes and his late wife, Agatha, to whom this collection of eight essays by former students is dedicated.

Central to Hughes's notions of "systems" and "momentum" is the idea that as technological "networks" are formulated and gain momentum they reflect and embody social and political power. It is to the further exploration [End Page 649] of this theme of "power, its practices, and its meanings," especially with regard to "the establishment and performance of authority" (p. 13) and its constitution through technology, that the authors of this collection make a nicely coordinated contribution. That a number of the essays also deal with power technologies of one sort or another, including electrical generation—which gave so much force of meaning to Hughes's own Networks of Power (1983)—makes this book's title, Technologies of Power, doubly, if not triply, apropos.

The volume opens with John Staudenmaier's thoughtful overview of Tom and Agatha's intellectual contributions to the history of technology, as well as a sensitive reflection upon their supportive mentoring of graduate students. Then follows the editors' introduction, laying out the volume's multiple themes, including an exploration of how cold war assumptions about technology's support of democratic values initially shaped technological historians' questions about their subject matter. Michael Allen and Gabrielle Hecht have arranged the eight empirically based essays in a rough chronological and geographical order, and a manner that nicely parallels the evolution of Hughes's scholarship.

Bernard Carlson opens with an assessment of how the design of late-nineteenth-century telephone systems reflected political ideologies, especially that of the emerging middle class. Erik Schatzberg's analysis of the Progressive-era debate over electrified overhead trolley wires reveals "the simultaneous shaping of technology and culture through politics" (p. 59). In an intriguing comparative study of early-twentieth-century building components and more recent Internet communication protocols, Amy Slaton and Janet Abbate show how technical standards can capture and shape labor relations, often thereby transforming the location of work responsibilities. Edmund Todd examines the supposedly nonpolitical and rational "shadow histories" by means of which German electrical engineers sought to represent, and thereby direct, "proper" German national development as they promoted competing generating and distribution systems.

For Todd, as for Allen, who investigates the meaning of "modernity"—especially with regard to the Holocaust—for the Third Reich, the interesting questions have to do with why and how historical actors believe that technology drives history in the ways they do. This same question also undergirds Hecht's essay on the relationship between French ideas about national identity and that nation's "technopolitical" decision to pursue a program of nuclear power, initially independent of other nations, that would at once produce electricity and "radiance"—le rayonnement, or grandeur—for France.

Erik Rau and Hans Weinberger examine the dynamics of power in the military context in two different settings. Rau analyzes the emergence of operations research in the World War II setting of British radar development, which brought together civilian scientists and military policymakers, [End Page 650] while Weinberger reveals how technical decisions made by the Swedish military infrastructure belied the rhetoric of Swedish neutrality during the early cold war years.

Collectively these essays represent some of the best current scholarship in the history of technology. The authors clearly point to "the sterility of the material/cultural divide...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 649-651
Launched on MUSE
2002-07-01
Open Access
No
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