Peter Sachs Collopy

Assignment on the History of a Technology

Over the semester so far, we’ve read about the histories of many technologies. We’ve studied how they changed over time, varied between places, were shaped by social, economic, and political forces, and in turn provided society with new ways to work, play, communicate, learn, fight, and travel.

Your assignment is to pick a technology that interests you, either historical or contemporary, and write an essay either about how society has shaped it or about how it has changed society (or both, if you like). Your thesis (or claim, or proposition) should not be merely that society has shaped a technology, or vice versa; rather, you should make a more specific claim about how this happened. Susan Douglas, for example, argues that young hobbyinsts shaped the technology of radio, more specifically by using it as a participatory, horizontal technology (though later the Navy and businesses changed it into a broadcast technology). Paul Josephson argues that technologies shaped Soviet society, and more specifically that American machines and work processes (e.g Fordism and Taylorism) brought with them a system of management that prioritized output over worker wellbeing, and contributed to the managerial, production-oriented nature of socialism in the USSR. I could probably draw such a thesis out of any of the readings we’ve done; your job is to formulate your own and argue for it. In addition to presenting your original analysis of this technology, your essay should demonstrate how other accounts—whether technical, journalistic, sociological, historical, etc.—have informed your analysis. We’ll talk in class on November 18 about where you might find such sources, so please come with an idea of what technology you’d like to write about.

Writing about how a technology shaped society is writing about influence, or, to use David Edgerton’s term, about significance. You might find his different strategies for thinking about significance helpful, then. In particular, you are welcome to make a counterfactual argument in order to ascertain how much a technology mattered; you could attempt to understand how the telephone was influential, for example, by imagining how American culture (or French culture, or some particular aspect of a culture, like business or dating) would be different if it were never invented.

Similarly, if you want to write about how society shaped a technology, you might find it helpful to think about how that technology would have been different in a different culture, or perhaps to even compare how a similar technology did actually develop differently somewhere else. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, for example, argues that European railroads were built straight because labor was cheap, while American railroads were built along the easiest paths because land was cheap.

Your essay should be five pages long, plus or minus a page. You should cite your sources, but you don’t have to use any particular citation style as long as you’re consistent throughout the paper. You’re welcome to use Wikipedia and other casual online sources as starting places to find more formal sources (journal articles, books, museum and academic websites, etc.), but please do not treat Wikipedia itself as an authority.

A draft is due by email on November 25, I’ll give it back to you with comments on December 2, and the final version of the paper is due on December 9. Please let me know if you have any questions about this assignment.