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The Seamless Web: Technology, Science, Etcetera, Etcetera Author(s): Thomas P. Hughes Reviewed work(s): Source: Social Studies of Science, Vol. 16, No. 2 (May, 1986), pp. 281-292 Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/285206 . Accessed: 20/01/2012 07:10 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]
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NOTESAND LETTERS * ABSTRACT Over the past two decades or so, historians of science have lamented the limitations of internalist history and celebrated the rise of contextual history. Historians of technology, however, have not accepted the location, by historians of science, of technology within the context of science. Historians oftechnology see an interaction, rather than contextual dependency. A few historians and sociologists of science and technology are now suggesting 'networks' and 'systems' as the preferred version of the interactive approach, with the interaction occurring not simply between science and technology, but also among a host of actors and institutions. Networks and systems eliminate many categories in favour of a 'seamless web', which may lead to a new appreciation of the complex narrativestyle.
The Seamless Web: Technology, Science, Etcetera, Etcetera Thomas P. Hughes There are problems with the contextual approach espoused by historians of science and technology, many of whom are reacting against the internalist mode. Flaws in contextualism began to appear when historians of technology rejected the notion that science is the context of technology, or that technology is simply applied science. They proposed an interactive relationship between technology and science. This, then, raised the question of whether the relationship between technology and other so-called contextual factors, such as the political and the social, should be redefined as interactive. The same question was asked about science and its context. A way out of the constraints of contextualism and into an interactive mode is now posed by the
Social Studies of Science Vol. 16 (1986), 281-92.
(SAGE, London, Beverly Hills and New Delhi),
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use of the 'systems' or 'networks' approach. Heterogeneous professionals - such as engineers, scientists, and managers - and heterogeneous organizations - such as manufacturing firms, utilities, and banks - become interacting entities in systems, or networks. Disciplines, persons, and organizations in systems and networks take on one another's functions as if they are part of a seamless web. This Note explores these shifting approaches and changing assumptions. Internalist and Contextual Histories In the past, many histories of technology and science were non-contextual, or internalist. These histories presented invention of artefacts and discovery of facts in a chronological narrative. Technology was usually defined as the technical artefacts; science as knowledge. As less complex and efficient machines, devices and processes gave way to those that were more so, and as limited applications of the technical devices were superseded by far more numerous ones, the authors of these histories began to believe that technology displayed an inherent logic. Internalist historians of science presented a sequence of ideas progressively raising higher by more refined and effective method the curtain separating us from the truth of nature. This kind of history can be written if the historian does not attempt to explain technological and scientific change by following causal connections wherever they may lead, but tries only to describe change within categories rigidly disciplinary. Describing only, not explaining, leads some historians to assume they are staying close to the facts, 'Wie es eigentlich gewesen war', but such an approach results, instead, in the mistaken impression that technological and scientific change is a process to which only technologists and scientists - and internalist historians - can attend.
Contextual History Within the past decade, as historians of science and technology began increasingly to seek an explanation for change, they referred more often to the context, especially the social context, of science and technology. These historians relegated science and
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technology to the inside of a context. This brought forth a more complex history that accorded more closely with our sense of messy reality. Rarely, however, did historians precisely define the categories that they placed in the context, nor did they always explain how the context and the content were related. They often had to resort to labelling the context as 'social', or to stringing out a list of analytical categories, including the social, political, and economic. This, however, merely substituted one set of high-level abstractions for another and left too much room for misunderstanding the nature of the social, political, economic, etcetera. Further, if the relationship between context and content were not specified, then the reader was left asking if context constructs content, if content shapes context, or if there is an interaction. May I give an example from my own work on electric light and power systems of how the search for explanation led first to contextual history, then to a sense of the inadequacies of this mode, and then to a systems approach to history? I asked, 'How did the small, intercity lighting systems of the 1880s evolve into the regional power systems of the 1920s?'1 I was also prepared to explore those cases where growth was expected, but did not occur. To respond to the problem of explaining growth, I found myself venturing into realms conventionally called science, politics, economics, social, and so on. I assumed that these could be considered context for the technology content. For instance, when early electric-light systems were introduced into cities such as New York, London, and Berlin, one of the first influential factors encountered was regulatory legislation, usually categorized as 'politics'. In London, regulatory legislation so powerfully and negatively influenced early electric-light utilities that many could not survive its effects. Yet many utilities did expand at that time, especially in the United States. Seeking explanations, I followed the leads in the sources beyond an internalist narrative of technical development. More efficient and more diverse generators, motors, and so on, did not sufficiently explain growth. The approach of the internalist proved insufficient. By the turn of the century, engineers and managers focused their creative activities more on the raising of the load factor, an economic concept dealing with the utilization of capital, than on the design of technical components. The external context seemed to be taking shape. As the power systems grew even larger, managers intent on
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growth devoted their energies to organizational problems. Managers rationally organized large numbers of engineers, electricians, administrative personnel, and others. They divided the utilities into functional divisions and departments. They analysed the social and industrial structure of the market to define markets and determine differential pricing. They regularly recorded consumption patterns of the consumers in order to predict and respond to loads. Category-conscious historians saw utility managers applying social science in their response to the social factor. Effective management, more than physical artefacts explained growth, or the absence of it.
The Interactive Model Contextual history seemed the satisfactory mode to answer the Gibbon question of how one state of affairs emerged from an earlier one. Furthermore, the context appeared to be shaping the physical artefacts. The 'social structuring of technology' seemed an apt phrase to describe causal relationships; 'technological determinism' did not.2 A cloud appeared, however, on the conceptual horizon. Historians, especially historians of technology, were asking penetrating questions about the science-technology relationship. They challenged the conventional wisdom that technology was applied science, and that science was a contextual factor of major importance explaining not only the growth of technology but also its genesis. Contrary to the conventional belief, science, one of the elements believed to have been in the context and to have had a hierarchical relationship to technology, appeared to be interacting with technology.3 About the same time, some sociologists of knowledge found not only interaction, but also interpenetration of technology and science. Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker argue that both science and technology are socially constructed cultures, and that the boundary between them is a matter for social negotiation and represents no underlying distinction. They quote Edwin Layton, the historian of technology, who has written that 'science and technology have become intermixed. Modern technology involves scientists who "do" technology and technologists who function as scientists ...'. Barry Barnes, the sociologist and philosopher, is also cited: 'they [science and technology] are in fact enmeshed in a
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symbiotic relationship' (italics added).4 Barnes suggested as well that since science and technology could be considered on a par with one another, and since the practitioners of each drew from the other, we should ask if this interactive model should not be tested with respect to science and other cultures, such as the political and the social.5 Removing barriers and destroying the dependency relationship in the case of science and technology did not suffice. Politicians, he reasoned, do not simply apply science without affecting it in a way similar to that by which engineers and inventors were once believed to apply science without affecting it. Instead, Barnes suggested that the political culture shapes that science with which it interacts. He also called attention to the work of historian Steve Shapin, who has demonstrated how the social uses of science have influenced the conception, development and evaluation of science.6 The interactive hypothesis presented by Barnes should be tried not only with sciente, but also with technology. Inside and outside, content and context, and the hierarchical, or dependency, relationship might give way to the interactive. Furthermore, interaction suggests that hard, analytical categories - such as technology, science, politics, economics and the social - should be used sparingly. if their use leads to difficulty in comprehending interconnection. A systems or networks approach may help historians present the history of technology in accord with the interactive mode. Inventors, engineers, managers, and financiers who have taken a lead in creating and presiding over technological systems show a way of grasping the seamless web. The Systems Approach In my own work I began to move away from the contextual to the systems approach when I found that system builders were no respecters of knowledge categories or professional boundaries. In his notebooks, Thomas Edison so thoroughly mixed matters commonly labelled 'economic', 'technical' and 'scientific' that his thoughts composed a seamless web. Charles Stone and Edwin Webster, founders of Stone & Webster (the consulting engineering firm), took as the company logotype the triskelion to symbolize the thoroughly integrated functions of financing, engineering, and construction performed by their company - an
organization responsible for many mammoth twentieth-century engineering projects. Nikolai Lenin, a technological enthusiast, also had a holistic vision when he wrote, 'Soviet power + Prussian railroad organization + American technology + the trusts = Socialism'.7 Perhaps Walther Rathenau, the head of Allgemeine Elektrizitats-Gesellschaft, Germany's largest manufacturing, electrical utility, and banking combination before World War I, epitomized the drive for integration and synthesis, both in his person and in the organizations he created and directed. He envisaged the entire German economy as functioning like a single machine, and he observed that in 1909 'three hundred men, all acquainted with each other [of whom he was one] control the economic destiny of the Continent'.8 The novelist Robert Musil, in Man Without Qualities (1930), characterized his Rathenau-like protagonist, Arnheim, as the embodiment of the 'mystery of the whole'. Many other engineers, inventors, managers and intellectuals in the twentieth century (especially in the early decades), created syntheses, or seamless webs. The great technological systems, utility networks, trusts, cartels, holding companies are evidence of their integrating and controlling aspirations. Essays and books calling for the displacement of the mechanical with the organic also testify to these intentions.9 The desire for systems and networks may have resulted in part from the rise of electrical and chemical engineering and the spread of a mode of thinking and organization associated with them. Electrical and chemical relationships, in contrast to mechanical or linear, are conceived of in terms of circuits, networks, and systems. Gear trains, cams, and followers are the linear interconnections common to the mechanical. Technology and science, pure and applied, internal and external, and technical and social, are some of the dichotomies foreign to the integrating inventors, engineers, and managers of the system- and network-building era. To have asked problem-solving inventors if they were doing 'science' or 'technology' probably would have brought an uncomprehending stare. Even scientists who thought of themselves as 'pure' would not have set up barriers between the internal and the external, if these would have prevented the search for solutions wherever the problem-solving thread might have led. Entrepreneurs and system builders creating regional production complexes incorporated in networks such seemingly foreign actors as legislators and financiers, if they could
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functionally contribute to the system-building goal. Instead of taking multidivisional-organizational layouts as bounded categories, integrating managers like Stone & Webster saw a seamless web. The technological systems of the system builders, such as an electric-light and power system, interconnect components so diverse as physical artefacts, mines, manufacturing firms, utility companies, academic research and development laboratories, and investment banks. These components make up a system because they fall under a central control and interact functionally to fulfil a system goal, or to contribute to a system output. Obviously, an electric-light and power system would not function if all generators were removed; less obviously, the system would also break down if an investment bank providing funds withdrew from the system. Historians and sociologists who want to organize their research and writing in accord with an interaction model might, therefore, choose as their subject matter system builders - such as inventors, engineers, managers and scientists - or the organizations over which they presided, or of which they were an integral part. Such dichotomies as technology/science would promptly evaporate. Historians and sociologists choosing such subjects would do research and writing in which the technical, scientific, economic, political, social, etcetera, became overlapping, soft categories. Some historians of science and techology still take the categories and dichotomies so seriously because they write about non problem-solving, category-filling scholars. Networks By contrast, Michel Callon, the French sociologist, believes that 'the fabric has no seams'. Callon asks why we categorize, or compartmentalize, the elements in a system or network 'when these elements are permanently interacting, being associated, and being tested by the actors who innovate?' Faced by the rigidcategories problem - science, technology, economics, politics, etcetera - Callon resorts to neologizing and uses a higher abstraction, 'actors', that subsumes science, technology and other categories. Actors are the heterogeneous entities that constitute a network. Disciplines do not bound actors. The historian or sociologist using the expression need not introduce connotative
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terms, such as the political, social, economic, and so on. As a case study, Callon employs the post-World War II effort of the French state to promote an electric vehicle.10 His actors include electrons, catalysts, accumulators, users, researchers, manufacturers, and ministerial departments defining and enforcing regulations affecting technology. These and many other actors interact through networks to create a coherent actor world. Callon does not, therefore, distinguish between the animate and inanimate, the individuals and the organizations. The actor world shapes and supports the technical object - an electric vehicle, in the case Callon presents. Electricite de France (EDF), a state enterprise, in fulfilling its programme for developing an electric vehicle (VEL), virtually writes a script or provides a scenario in which the actor's roles are so defined and their relationships are so bounded that the VEL will be conceived by, and become a co-extension of, the actor world. In concepts reminiscent of Martin Heidegger, Callon portrays the VEL as the physical artefact that the actors are defined to bring forth, enframe, and sustain.11 He sees no outside (social)-inside (technology) dichotomy. 'Transformation' is one of Callon's major concepts. He argues that a new actor world and the technology it sustains are not, as has often been said of invention, a new combination of old entities or components. One cannot simply shop in an imaginary technology-component supermarket and then assemble a combination. The actors - whether consumers, fuel cells, or automobile manufacturers (as in the case of Callon's electricvehicle example) - must have their attributes and interests defined for them, or transformed, so that they can play their assigned roles in the scenario conceived of by the actor-world designer, Electricite de France. To use Edison's approach, each component in the system has to be designed to interact harmoniously with the characteristics of the others. Callon insists that organizations, as well as physical artefacts, have to be invented for system and actor worlds. If existing organizations or artefacts are to be used, then they must be transformed. Callon stresses how difficult it is, once the transformation has been made, to fix it or make it stable. The heterogeneous actors in the network tend to revert to former roles or to take on others, and so the network, or system, breaks down. These failures should be of as much interest to historians and sociologists of technology
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as the success stories. The successes and failures should, the strong programme in the sociology of knowledge argues, be explained impartially or symmetrically.12 Callon also refers to 'heterogeneous elements', or 'actors'. The sociologist, John Law, of the University of Keele, who has worked closely with Michel Callon and his associate Bruno Latour at the Ecole des Mines de Paris, has provided a history of heterogeneous actors and of heterogeneous engineers in an essay entitled, 'Technology, Closure and Heterogeneous Engineering: The Case of the Portuguese Expansion'.13 Law stresses heterogeneity because, as in the systems approach discussed above, components commonly labelled scientific, economic, political, and so on, interact in the case he discusses to form a network, system, or actor world engaged in seafaring. The creators of the network the system builders, or the formulators of the actor world - are 'heterogeneous engineers' in Law's scenario. Law writes: 'in the network view that I wish to develop, the technologist [heterogeneous engineer] has to be seen as attempting to build a world where bits and pieces, social, natural, physical or economic, are interrelated ...'.14 Through the interaction, the bits and pieces lose their categorical integrity. These are named 'entities', 'components', or 'actors' to avoid the conventional distinctions, or categories. Callon's and Law's - and systems - concepts are applicable to many case histories in which knowledge, physical artefacts, persons, groups, and institutions are organized to solve problems or to fulfil goals. Recently, Timothy Lenoir has presented an analytical narrative about the development of new organizational forms of pursuing scientific research and fulfilling national goals in late nineteenth-century Germany. 15If network or systems concepts are used, there is no cut-and-dried distinction between the goals (and even the means) of scientists, academics, educational and state ministers, and their organizations doing biomedical research to improve public health in late nineteenth-century Germany. These are heterogeneous actors or components linked by a system or a network of the actor world. In the Lenoir case, the creators of the scenario - the heterogeneous engineers and the system builders - are scientists-become-science-entrepreneurs, such as Robert Koch. In such a case, scientific knowledge, too, is part of a seamless web incorporating so-called social, political, and ideological dimensions along with the conceptual content of science.16
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Up to this point in this Note, 'system' and 'network' have been used interchangeably. Callon, however, finds important differences in the concepts.17 A system, according to him, has an environment - a remaining outside - that a network does not. The organizers of networks leave nothing outside, or to chance, that would affect the network. In systems, the environment is made up of influences and forces that affect, and are affected by, the system, but are not controlled by it. It should be stressed, however, that history shows that system builders and managers have striven mightily to incorporate the forces of the environment into their systems in order to gain control of the forces. Managers call this 'reducing uncertainty'. Background and Foreground Not only environment becomes organism, but background merges into foreground. Consideration of the development phase in the history of technological systems reinforces this argument. When inventors, engineers and industrial scientists are developing an invention so that it can survive on the market or in its use environment, they attempt to anticipate the various factors that the device or process will encounter and to incorporate responses to these in the physical artefacts. For instance, if regulatory legislation will be influential, then the design of the device reflects the requirements anticipated. If a particular class of users is foreseen, their preferences can be incorporated in the design. These design considerations are obvious, but what should be stressed is that the technical artefacts reflect the background or environment. So, the so-called social and political background are embodied in the technology. The incorporation of social organizations within technological and scientific systems, also demonstrates the inappropriateness of defining social as background. Manufacturing firms, research laboratories, university departments, utilities, banks, and other organizations are not the background to the cognitive and technical foreground; they are, as noted, often fully integrated components in a system in which physical artefacts are also components. Distinctions and categories also soften in technological and scientific systems because not only professionals - such as scientists and engineers - but also organizations become multifunctional. Manufacturing firms integrate with utilities;
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utilities merge with banks; mining enterprises become one with manufacturing firms. Conclusion The endeavour to change our way of thinking about technological and scientific change from the mechanical and analytical to the systematic, organic and holistic is fraught with conceptual and linguistic problems, as this Note has shown. The long-term use of analytical categories such as technology and science, content and context, foreground and background, and internalist and externalist, has conditioned historians to set up discrete entities rather than seamless webs, particles rather than waves. One way to transform our cognitive mode is to avoid these traditional categories with their time-worn connotations, and resort to neologisms and the abstrations of interaction - such as component and system, entity and network, and actor and actor world. The abstractions can be defined by the precise language of the case history and the historical narrative.
* NOTES 1. Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 2. 2. See the introduction to Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman (eds), The Social Shaping of Technology (Milton Keynes, Bucks., and Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1985), 2-25. 3. Notable instances persuading historians that there was a two-way street between science and technology were the contributions of Renaissance craftsmen to science by means of instrument building, the development of the steam engine prior to the science of thermodynamics that provided a theory for its performance, and the testimony of electric-light and power, wireless, airplane, and feedbackcontrol inventors and engineers that they forged ahead of science. Elmer Sperry, a pioneer in modern feedback controls, is a case in point: see Thomas Parke Hughes, Elmer Sperry (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971). Nathan Reingold and Arthur Molella, in their introduction (624-33) to a set of conference papers on 'The interaction of Science and Technology in the Industrial Age', Technology and Culture, Vol. 12 (1976), 621-742, stress that the eight historians of technology presenting papers rejected the notion of technology as applied science
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and suggested far more complex interaction and overlapping. 4. Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker, 'The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts', in Bijker, Pinch and T. Hughes (eds), The Social Construction of Technological Systems (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986, forthcoming). 5. Barry Barnes, 'The Science-Technology Relationship: A Model and a Query', Social Studies of Science, Vol. 12 (1982), 166-72. 6. S. Shapin, 'Social Uses of Science', in G. S. Rousseau and R. Porter (eds), The Ferment of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 93-139. 7. Lenin, quoted by Eckhart Gillen, 'Die Sachlichkeit der Revolutionare', in Wem gehort die Welt: Kunst und Gesellschaft in der Weimarer Republik (Berlin: NGBK, 1977), 214. 8. Harry Kessler, Walther Rathenau: His Life and Work (New York: Howard Fertig, 1969), 121. 9. See the plea for the preservation of the organic in the face of the increasing mechanization of life in the work of Lewis Mumford, including Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt Brace), published in 1934. Mumford's longing for the organic was shared by his early mentor, Patrick Geddes. 10. M. Callon, 'The State and Technical Innovation: A Case Study of the Electric Vehicle in France', Research Policy, Vol. 9 (1980), 358-76. 11. Martin Heidegger (trans. William Lovitt), The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 19. 12. Michel Callon and John Law. 'On Interests and their Transformation: Enrolment and Counter-Enrolment', Social Studies of Science, Vol. 12 (1982), 615-25. I am also drawing on an unpublished Callon draft entitled 'Society in the Making', in which he uses the concept 'translation' in a way similar to his use of 'transformation'. 13. To appear in Bijker, Hughes and Pinch (eds), op.cit. note 4. 14. Law, in ibid. 15. Timothy Lenoir, 'Reverse Salients and Magic Bullets: Science-Based Medicine and the Industrial System in the Kaiserreich', a paper presented at the annual meeting of the History of Science Society (Bloomington, Indiana, 2 November 1985). 16. I am indebted to Timothy Lenoir for this observation. 17. M. Callon, 'The Sociology of an Actor-Network', in Callon, J. Law and A. Rip (eds), Mapping the Dynamics of Science and Technology (London: Macmillan, 1986, forthcoming); Callon, 'Society in the Making: The Study of Technology as a Tool for Sociological Analysis', in Bijker, Hughes and Pinch (eds), op.cit. note 4.
Thomas P. Hughes is a Professor in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania. Author's address: Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania, E. F. Smith Hall D6, 215 South 34th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA.