U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Trying to Write About the History of Technology and Not Be an Idiot

Lately, I have been trying to navigate the history of technology.  I am new to much of this, and the notes here reflect a novice’s confusion, I’m sure.

The question of how to handle the history of technology comes into play as I try to make sense of the labor history of cultural workers at the turn of the twentieth century. My focus is on the interaction of ideas of cultural work and the law of copyright. Many of my chapters involve some version of the following process: a new way of making copies appears on the scene, and this poses a threat to traditional forms of cultural work, although in some cases the technological innovation hints at new opportunities for employment (as well as new venues in which to monetize old texts or repackage old skills); the final result is often a class struggle of sorts between corporations and those who make their livings from aesthetic activities (some of whom are fated to become these corporations’ employees). There are often auxiliary struggles between large corporations and upstarts, parallel conflicts regarding taste and censorship, and all sorts of complex interrelations between local battles and larger events within the political economy of the United States.

There is a great temptation, in narrating these stories, to situate new technologies (printing press innovations, lithography, photography, the mass-produced/mass-consumption piano, player-piano rolls, photography, telegraphy, cinema, radio) as “causes,” and to treat changes in law as “effects.” Cultural labor–ostensibly the subject of my study–is, in this presentation, always an effect of an effect.

The deeper I delve in primary sources, the more I am convinced of the soundness of the interventions of scholars like Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers (though I am hesitant about adopting Latour’s Actor-Network Theory apparatus). Distilled, the critique of Latour and Stengers is a variation on a theme by Alfred North Whitehead (an acknowledged intellectual hero to both). Historians of science and technology, Whitehead insisted, were often guilty of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” For Whitehead, there was nothing wrong with reifications like “Technology,” “Law,” “Capitalism,” and “Progress.” We probably need terms like these to do any intellectual work of any sort at all. But, like all abstractions, they are useful for certain things, and ill-suited for others. The common mistake is to forget that they are abstractions. When it is insisted that an exhaustive account of human reality can be delivered by way of these abstractions, we get into trouble.

Thus: from a pragmatic point of view, a statement like “Capitalism required that the Law change in order to accommodate new Technologies” is vacuous. As historians, we would at very least have to find some capitalists who sought to change certain specific laws by appealing to a juridical process via the mediation of lawyers and judges, and relate that in some way to the introduction of novel material processes overseen by inventors or tinkerers or corporate employees. And if we did that, I think, we would begin to find that all manner of forces and agents were at work that would exceed or frustrate the containers of “Capitalism,” “Law,” and “Technology.”

Consider, also, the difficulty of adequately separating “Technology” from “Capitalism” from “Law.” After all, the corporation is a sort of technology, as is the stock market, and so is jurisprudence, to say nothing of the jury system, the carceral apparatus, and the agencies in charge of the police power. But if “Technology” seems impossible to disambiguate from “Capitalism” and “Law,” so too does “Law” seem impossible to disambiguate from “Capitalism” (can one peruse Kent’s Commentaries, for example, without noticing its capitalist penmanship?) and “Capitalism” from “Law” (what is capitalism other than a certain set of guarantees about the disposition of property, including property in one’s person?)

The Whiteheadian solution is to shift our attention to the temporary alliances created by the elements within a given universe. We don’t have to proceed in this way, of course, but there is also no good reason not to.

The moral objection to such a world-picture is that it seems to lack Agents, or at least to disqualify certain kinds of narratives about human actors as existential protagonists. I have deep concerns of this sort, I must confess. I know that “Agent” is an abstraction. If I look around for capital-A “Agents” in my immediate surroundings, I probably won’t find any; or, conversely, if I am being open-minded, I will find thousands of potential Agents, most of whom are not human beings engaged in traditional varieties of political struggle. So, I muddle forward, like everybody else.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Kurt, your project sounds fascinating. Not to pile on, but I was curious the word media is not mentioned, I think it could help in parsing out the difficulties of technology, even if you’re not focusing on media in and of itself. I think it’s great that you don’t want to just do an human agents-only history, but like you I have problems with approaches that end up reducing media, technology, etc. as agents themselves (I think that’s what you’re suggesting, correct me if I am wrong). A theorist that deals with this with nuance is Lisa Gitelman in Always Already New, where she criticizes Kittler and co., taking into account both how media and technology constitute our “selves” and how our “selves” have a role in constituting them, how they circulate, the institutions through which they proliferate, etc. It’s a dialectic of sorts.

    • Kahlil, thanks so much for this comment, and, yes, I agree completely about the salvific potentials of operationalizing the term “media.” Gitelman is one of my favorite scholars–in fact, her essay on the 1909 Copyright Act and race is one of the best examples of the kind of history of technology I would like to learn how to do–and I think reading her work for clues as to how to structure things will be vital for me pulling together my various threads.

  2. It feels, deep in my bones, that Lewis Mumford would have something to say about this post—something that matters to you, Kurt.

    As I was reading along, it occurred to me to present/ask the following: What about technologies created to work around, or subvert, existing laws? Technologies don’t just happen by some mystical process of “discovery.” Rather, they arrive on the scene, sometimes, as a direct result of wanting to subvert a prior law/process/technology/arc of progress. – TL

      • Tim, thanks so much for this comment! I love Mumford’s early writings, and am definitely working to incorporate them into my project. But, as you indicate, “incorporate” is probably the wrong word: Mumford, properly absorbed, would in fact provide an alternative framework that might, indeed, solve some of the interpretive dilemmas here posed…

    • Thanks so much for this. I love Mirowski, and I am sure I will agree with much of his critique of Latour. What I am guessing is that the final adjudication of Mirowski v Latour will come down to the question of the fate of positivism, and the difference between positivist history and positivist science and positivist social science and positivist philosophy. This is a theme that Steinmetz writes about elegantly–maybe a good topic for a future post.

  3. Kurt: I sometimes get the impression from your posts on this topics that it’s Latour, complete with OOO, ANT, and all, or nothing when it comes to STS and/or story of technology. The vast majority of historians of technology reject the notion of “technological determinism” (the idea that abstract technologies drive history), but many of them do so without embracing Latour. I’d encourage you to browse about 5 years’ work of T&C (Technology and Culture) to get a sense of the range of ways that you can do sophisticated histories of technology with OR without Latour.

    And maybe check out SHOT. It’s not my cup of tea, but that’s another story.

  4. If you haven’t seen them, perhaps Chris Kelty, Two Bits or Adrian Johns, Piracy would be helpful For that matter what about the genre focusing on IP issues related to biotech?

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