A poor way of looking at technological history

Posted on February 4th, 2013 in Driving Emotion,Opinion,Technologies by Julian Edgar

Recently I thought it might be good to do some further tertiary study.

The topic? Transport history.

I like trains, cars, ships, hovercraft, airships and the like, and I read a lot about them, especially their technological development.

So I looked for a tertiary institution that offers a course in this area. I found one too, offered by distance education at a university in the UK.

I wrote to them, giving a little of my background (diploma and degree in education with majors in geography and sociology, graduate diploma in journalism, author of a tech book on cars, and longstanding journalist in the field of electronics and technology), and asked if their course would be suitable.

They were positive but pointed out that the course, a certificate, was taught at a level that may be overly simple for me. However, when I looked at the content, it actually looked really interesting.

The first year of the two-year course was based around content that traced the development of transport within Britain over the last few hundred years, and in the second year, students were able to write a dissertation on, the university said, any transport-related topic they liked.

The course was not cheap (around AUD$5000 a year) but as I say, it looked good – especially with the freedom in the second year. In fact, I mused, what sort of topic would I pick for that long second-year paper? I came up with three possibles: automotive front suspension design 1920 – 1950, aerodynamics of passenger cars 1970 – 1990, and development of the SR.N4 commercial hovercraft. Each I thought would be a worthy area of major study: I became quite excited at the prospect of the course on which I was to embark.

I wrote to the university, nominating these topics and asking if they’d be suitable.

But then things started going downhill.

Back came the reply:

“Technical subjects are, of course, very acceptable so long as the study contains analysis in the historical context. A straight story of changes in design with no linkage to social/economic/historical influences would not be acceptable.

The course convenor went on:

“In other words, we would not be interested in precise details of nuts and bolts but we would be interested in how and why it developed that way.”

Further, the lecturer nominated a link that, she said, showed the approach the university liked. The most interesting part of that link was at http://www.historyoftechnology.org/booklets_intro.html. Here is an excerpt:

Scholarly specialists now largely agree about what is called social construction: the idea that technologies succeed or fail (or emerge at all) partly because of the political strategies employed by “actors”— individuals, groups, and organizations—that have conflicting or complementary interests in particular outcomes. [….]  …there is no doubt that technological designs are shaped by ambient social and cultural factors…. the shaping of technology is integral to the shaping of society and culture.

In other words, the development of technology should be examined through a sociological rather than technical prism.

Now as I wrote above, I have a degree-level major in sociology: I am completely happy that a historical analysis of technological developments should occur in part within a sociological frame of reference. And  clearly, the success or otherwise of the technology, if assessed by the change it brings to society, is well measured and described by an analysis that takes into account the contemporaneous (and subsequent)  economic, political and cultural environments.

But to suggest that those responsible for the development of the technology are mere actors, implicitly of no great consequence – well!

The development of hovercraft technology very much reflected the economic, political and cultural environment of 1960s Britain – but crucially, without the ideas of one man, Christopher Cockerell, there would have been no hovercraft in the first place! Further, without the intellectual capital expended by engineers within Saunders Roe, bent on overcoming specific technical issues, there would have been no giant SR.N4 hovercraft – even if all this occurred in exactly the same sociological and historical environment.

You simply cannot exclude from the story the people who came up with – and refined – the ideas: they are integral to the technological development, as are the discrete steps they took in that process.

Furthermore, the suggested approach ignores the idea that there are objective measurable outcomes in technological achievement itself – it is not only within a social context that any worthwhile judgements can be made of technology.

Would Issigonis’s Mini have been less of a technological achievement if the car had been unsuccessful within broader society – something that, soon after its release, looked quite likely? If analysis includes objective automotive design criteria such as packaging efficiency, fuel economy, performance and handling – then no, it would have been just as great a technological advance, even if it had been a commercial flop with little overt societal impact.

So while I certainly understand the critical importance of a social context in terms of genesis, adoption and impact of a technological advance, to pay only lip-service to the nitty-gritty of the technology itself, and its process of development, seems to me to be missing a helluva lot of the wood for the trees.

It’s easy to be uncharitable: perhaps this approach is the one endorsed because people don’t want to be bothered understanding the technology – better to just accept that it would have come about anyway….so who cares how they actually did it?

But what an incredible belittlement of engineers….

Footnote: I’ve decided not to do the course.

6 Responses to 'A poor way of looking at technological history'

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  1. Dave said,

    on February 4th, 2013 at 10:43 am

    make sure you’re not just getting hung up on the word “actor”, it reads to me like they are using the word in a similar context to software design, eg: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Actor_(UML)

  2. Julian Edgar said,

    on February 4th, 2013 at 10:49 am

    I forgot to include another quote from the course convenor:

    “I remain committed to the view that the *development* of technology is of little interest (to a non-engineer) outside of its historical context.”

    ie who cares how they did it!

  3. David Owens said,

    on February 4th, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    Of course it is only in the understanding of its social context that someone (engineer OR non-engineer) will be able to appropriate someone else’s step of technical brilliance in a new situation 🙂

    Sorry the engineer in me slipped out.

  4. stewart Murray said,

    on February 5th, 2013 at 7:54 am

    welcome back to course life.

    Learn the content (chosen by comittee, refined by the lecturers’ whim), hopefully pass some arbitrary standards (even to a “bell curve” outcome, guaranteeing some people fail). then once you have “made it” , get a job at a uni, start the cycle over etc. if you need education for a job, suck it up. no alternative. if you actually want to learn, rather than be taught, there is much more knowledge out there than chaining yourself some rusty course.

    Well done J. Keep quenching that thirst.

  5. Budhi Santoso said,

    on February 5th, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Sad to see that people lossing their interest in technological process and their much lower respect to the inventor who change their live or habbit.

  6. Steve said,

    on February 16th, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    A well written and stoic article. Unfortunately the ‘why’ is often more important simply because of the way in which a lot of technical advances came to fruition. Most would be unaware that, over the course of centuries, pretty much every technical invention and innovation was ‘seeded’ ie; the spark was created very eloquently, politically and hopefully with no trail. All of the expertise was stolen from previous civilisations with no recompense or acknowledgement, albeit structured into a curriculum for up and coming minds. One only has to look at the plethora of brands and aspects while understanding that there is a very limited number of ways that a technical issue can be extrapolated (put in a different case or configuration for the illusion of many options or conclusions). However, one must also agree there are many bright minds that have taken such ideas and created very profitable outcomes, not neccessarily for themselves but, for their masters. Another day would be better for the investigation of programmed obsolescence and single point failure which, for me, demonstrates the art of engineering has been polluted and subverted. There is something to be said for both your argument and that of the course provider, the thesis of either with the potential to make or break careers. Cheers 🙂