Sunday, January 20, 2013

20: John Staudenmaier's Technology's Storytellers

Technology's Storytellers is an analysis of 20 years' worth of articles from Technology and Culture, the main journal for historians of technology.  It is also, despite this limited scope, an articulation of a new way if thinking about the relationship between technology and culture, which Staudenmaier calls the "constituency model."

Staudenmaier's taxonomies of the articles are interesting, especially insofar as this book is basically a big long bibliography essay for an emerging field of study.  But his constituency model is probably more interesting, so I'll focus on that here.

The constituency model is based on (his dissertation director) Thomas Hughes' theory of technological momentum, which argues (basically) that when technologies are new, they are very malleable and thus very responsive to cultural conditions, but as they age, they become harder to change, and thus they are more likely to shape culture than to be shaped by it.

Staudenmaier adds to this theory in a couple of ways.  First, he divides the aging of technology into three phases and assigns a constituency to each:
  •  the design stage + design constituency: the attitudes of the inventors, the economic and ideological climate when (and where) the design is taking place, potential users, potential workers, and available technologies all help shape the technology
  • the momentum stage + maintenance constituency: as a technology matures and becomes more rigid/ harder to change, it's easier to change culture to fit the technology than to try to change the technology, so new social patterns start to emerge
  • the senility stage: a technology, which is an artifact of the particular time and place of its creation and early life, finally becomes outmoded because the world around it has changed so much.  Sometimes the technology gets redesigned; more often, the technology's boosters try to realign culture with the technology and fail.
  • the impact constituency: these are the people who lose because of a technology, or those who suffer from the rigidities and limitations in the technology.

Like Hughes, Staudenmaier is interested in broadening the study of technology from histories of the development of the object itself to explorations of the relationship between a technology and its particular historical moment.  More than Hughes, however, he has a radical agenda of uncovering and giving voice to those people who are adversely affected by technologies, form the Lakota Sioux whom Staudenmaier taught after college to the people in third world countries who are forced into sweatshop labor.  He also argues that historians of technology should not be afraid of Marx.

While a study of a single journal's articles is more a study of editorial preferences than field-wide trends, Staudenmaier's theoretical intervention is rather useful, especially in a globalized economy where the Western faith in technological progress is now pretty much everywhere.  I'm a big fan of finding ways to give voice to the oppressed and questioning the drive to solve all the world's problems with ever more technological solutions.

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