- In This Issue
When we study the history of technology, what is it the history of? In a historiographic essay that surveys the important field of digital culture, Nathan Ensmenger asks: What are we studying? Information? Hardware? Software? For Ensmenger, neither the too-narrow history of computing nor the too-broad history of information can quite capture what the growing literature on the history of digital technologies is accomplishing. His essay offers a provocative overview of this diverse and rapidly expanding literature and highlights challenges for future scholarship.
The articulations established between technologies and human bodies have fascinated technology historians for many years. Thomas Mullaney takes the technosomatic complex of information technologies as his theme in this compelling and important study of technology in Chinese history. Investigating the sociotechnical practices of typewriting in China during the Maoist period, he probes the deeper history from which particular relationships among linguistics, bodily movement, and technology emerged. He draws our attention to the intricate mutual interplay among the organization of written language, the technologies of typesetting and typewriting, and the countless idiosyncratic decisions individuals made to integrate their personal bodily practices with machines. The result is a fascinating history of the collective reconfiguration of information culture in nineteenth-and twentieth-century China.
As compared to complex and individualized technosomatic interactions found in the world of Chinese typists, nothing could seem simpler than the humble push buttons that dominated electrified American homes in the early twentieth century. But as Rachel Plot-nick engagingly reveals, life “at the interface” was surprisingly controversial. Digging into the perceptions of push buttons that turned on axes of convenience/skill and concealment/visibility, Plotnick shows that even seemingly straightforward interactions between humans and technologies can engage multiple aspirations for, and definitions of, a better, happier society.
Technical factors matter. This claim is so obvious to historians of technology that we may forget that it still has the power to unlock new interpretations of complex events. Thomas Wellock’s groundbreaking reading of the controversies that resulted in the decline of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) asks how technical factors internal to the commission mattered, breaking with traditional interpretations that emphasize the actions of external critics. As Wellock shows, the “evolving search for reliable knowledge” within the agency itself crucially influenced both the challenges made by outsiders to the AEC and the dissatisfactions that resulted in its ultimate demise.
Must the history of technology always be a history of technological change? In our Inside the Black Box feature, John Stone explores a curiously stable, yet by no means defunct military technology: the bayonet. By making stability the center of his attention, Stone challenges the familiar and simplistic narratives about technology in military thinking that cite either knee-jerk conservatism or unthinking high-tech fetishism as explanations. His brilliant investigation of the stable bayonet provides fresh insights into the place of technology in military strategy and the human experience of modern warfare. [End Page viii]