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  • Learning from Disaster?The History of Technology and the Future of Disaster Research
  • Scott Gabriel Knowles (bio)

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction estimates that globally from 2000 to 2012 disasters killed 1.2 million people, affected 2.9 billion others, and claimed $1.7 trillion dollars in material damage.1 The United States has moved into a “new normal” of frequent, billion-dollar hurricanes, eight of the ten costliest occurring since 2004. The Department of Defense warns that climate change threatens national security and will cause global political instability as a result of “prolonged drought and flooding … food shortages, desertification, population dislocation and mass migration, and sea level rise.”2 Not a week goes by without news of a new technological “accident,” and the malignant long-term impacts of chemicals, radiation, plastics, petroleum—the material markers of technological society—on our bodies, our communities, and our planet.

Historians of technology and science—working together with STS colleagues—have powerful tools to apply toward the work of reducing disaster losses globally in the twenty-first century. Disaster research is in fact a wildly interdisciplinary intellectual ground, comprised of the humanities and social sciences, and converging frequently with more practice-focused communities in city planning, emergency management, public health, public policy, engineering, and the natural and physical sciences. Disasters cut across realms of knowledge and practice in an unparalleled way.

Historians of technology have a very specific role to play in offering longitudinal perspective—charting hazards and risks, technical epistemologies [End Page 773] and languages, and disasters themselves across historical time. Historical research is also highly attuned to comparative analysis, discovering and connecting expert and organizational cultures across disciplinary, organizational, and national boundaries. These skills are useful as we try to understand the ways that hazards are created, risks are calculated, and policies of disaster management are enacted. Disasters themselves are scrutinized by historians for the ways they are used to frame and reframe arguments over nature, technology, corporate power, and the role of the modern state in protecting citizens. And, of course, historians of technology are particularly well-poised to open the black box of technology, demonstrating the material and also the political mechanisms of technical knowledge and artifacts. Many from the history of technology community have worked influentially in this area for years. But the need for even more historical understanding is at this time acute. A poverty of disaster memory is convenient for some, but a tragedy for most. And if we do not continue to fill this void of knowledge, others will do it for us without the perspectives offered by the long view of history, namely that risk-taking is no accident and disasters are never truly unexpected.

The relevance of disaster research is clear in the pages of Technology and Culture since September 11, and even more visible in events such as the 2011 co-located (HSS, SHOT, 4S) plenary session on “Dealing with Disasters,” with Gabrielle Hecht, Hugh Gusterson, and Spencer Weart. At the 2012 SHOT annual meeting, the Prometheans Special Interest Group brought together seventeen papers around the topic of “Historical and Contemporary Studies of Disasters.” The 4S meeting that same year included four linked panels dedicated to the topic of Fukushima (among many other disaster-themed sessions). This year, historians, anthropologists, and sociologists of science and technology played a central role in the fiftieth anniversary of the highly influential Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. And an interdisciplinary Disaster-STS research portal is now live on the web ( Disaster research is emerging as a vigorous subfield in the larger hybrid of techno-scientific inquiry—overlapping productively with environmental, public health, and industrial history.

If we believe (as I do) that history provides the foregrounding for effective public policy in nuclear regulation, environmental pollution, sustainable land use, climate change, and emergency management, then it is a mistake for us to sit by the phone anticipating a senator’s call asking for advice about the next disaster. Waiting for relevant disaster research to organically “find its way” into public discourse is a failure of professional responsibility, and of imagination. Historians can participate in disaster reduction...