Letters to the Editor

On “The Social in the Machine”

Kenneth R. Zimmerman, May 2014

To the Editor:

The March 2014 issue of Perspectives on History includes the article "The Social in the Machine: How Historians of Technology Look Beyond the Object," by Barbara Hahn. The article opens up whole new vistas, not just in the history of science and technology, but in the future of history as a form of engagement among historians and the world in general.

Hahn focuses on one particular "model" of constructivism that she says has "percolated" through the history of technology from its "hot spot" in social studies of science and technology. That model is "actor-network theory" (ANT). Based in the work of Bruno Latour, Michele Callon, John Law, and others, ANT has a central focus on actors and actions as process-a good match for the history of technology, I think. And the particular focus of ANT for the past 35 years has been science and technology for the simple reason, say those involved in ANT, that once you can describe the so called "higher forms" of knowledge and action in terms of the processes that make (build or construct) them, other "lower forms" must be made via similar processes.

It's my intent here to contribute a few additional comments on what Hahn has so ably written, to fill in the holes, you might say. First, technological objects are indeed objects, like the many other objects whose interactions make the world today, the world yesterday, the world tomorrow; in fact, history is one of those objects. Objects are made through interactions with other objects. So we should not get comfortable with the idea that either humans (humanism) or history (determinism) have an existence outside of the ongoing interactions that make the world and all objects in it. For most people, including historians, this can be disconcerting. Most want more durability and certainty.

The above is important because only by beginning with it can we have a chance of glimpsing the multiple interactive processes that make all the things (people, rules, studies, tools, economies, etc.) that constitute our ways of life, including our history and the study of history, and their meanings. Technology is a process of construction, the study of technology is a process of construction, and the meanings of both are processes of construction. In this regard, whether it's technology or science, both are processes, just different ones. And I'm fairly certain the processes have crossed and will cross again. This can prompt an important form of intellectual caution: the sense that all knowledge is shaped, contingent, and in some other world could be otherwise. If someone tells us a certain arrangement "must be so," we may or may not believe what we have been told. But we will certainly cling fast to the sense that what is seemingly so "natural" could be otherwise.

ANT is not a model. Nor is it a theory, a methodology, or a philosophy. It is rather a sensitivity, or actually a group of sensitivities. Nor does ANT reject the dualities that come down to us. But ANT wants to know how the dualities are made. Macro/micro, historical/ahistorical, good/bad. They are made. And they are made by agents. And agents include all actors that make a difference, that are involved in the work, human and nonhuman. This places one of the more common dichotomies used by historians-"cause/effect"-in a new light. ANT's position on this dichotomy is that of William James: there are lots of causes and effects that can be assigned to a series of interactions, during and after these interactions. There is thus no true, correct, or genuine cause or effect, no essential cause or effect. Hahn hints at this in her article, but never quite gets there.

Finally, I agree fully with Hahn's statement "there are very few historical studies that would not benefit from close attention to the history of technology-and not merely for what investigators might learn about particular mechanisms." But please don't assume going into such work that you know what the major terms are or how they were made. History, technology, mechanism-they all will be built and rebuilt in the studies, and historians will be among the agents that build and rebuild them. But not the only agents.

Kenneth R. Zimmerman, PhD
The History Business, Inc.




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