Our Tools Will Not Save Us: Why Study the History of Technology

There are several great reasons to explore technological change using historical perspectives and methods of research but so many people are unaware of them–or opposed.  In the present, we have a popular view of history that is focused on great men and epic battles but these emphases provide little to explain momentous changes at the core of today’s major events.  To be fair, historians have long challenged the formulaic conventions of rulers and generals as the only subjects worthy of consideration.  However, most of the public is unaware of this shift.  Consequently, most would suggest that the study of technology belongs to those with the greatest level of technical expertise (i.e. engineers).  While a high degree of technical expertise certainly yields useful perspectives on technological shifts, there is much to be gained from a study of technological change based in the humanities.

1. As Ira Brodsky has argued, technology continues to play an increasingly important role in historical change but few people take the time to consider these changes in perspective and the broader historical impact of their evolution. Far too often our views of technological change tend to operate in two camps.  One the one hand, we tend to exalt technology to the level of a sentient force as evidenced in the concept of the technium popularized by Kevin Kelly‘s What Technology Wants. At the other extreme we tend to minimize the negative impacts of technology and its ongoing relevance or react strongly to particular forms of technology we dislike.  We are largely oblivious to broader social and economic consequences of our adoptions and rejections. This form of Neo-Luddism (a misnomer in itself), tends to be particularly true for those trained in the so-called ‘soft’ disciplines of the humanities. The consequences are that we really have an underdeveloped idea of technology and its impact on human history.

2. A growing number of graduates from ‘hard’ disciplines are coming to terms with an inability to express their technological insights to a broader audience outside of the silos of their areas of expertise. Thinking and talking about technology in historical terms allows us to employ the power of the narrative as a tool to teach and understand even some of the most complicated technological subjects. This is particularly important given the findings of past reports of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research Council (NRC):

“Technology has become so user friendly it is largely “invisible.” Americans use technology with a minimal comprehension of how or why it works or the implications of its use or even where it comes from. American adults and children have a poor understanding of the essential characteristics of technology, how it influences society, and how people can and affect its development.” (Science and Engineering Indicators 2004)

3. Our education about the future, nay even the present, is more interdisciplinary in nature today than it has ever been. As the American university becomes more specialized, the workplace and the world around us has become much more responsive to ideas from vastly different disciplinary, cultural, and regional contexts. Traditionally, fields like history tended to focus on periods and regions as the central focus of explaining change over time. Today, major thinkers in both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ disciplines are transgressing long established disciplinary boundaries in how they innovate and engage core questions.  Poets now code with the meter of Tennyson, artists extemporize on 3-D printers, and engineers must design with the insights of Jung.

While we marvel at these transgressions, we also underscore our own ignorance of the past.  Ada Lovelace cut her teeth on mathematics and programming while incorporating literary and poetic sensibilities. Leonardo Da Vinci, the world’s most famous polymath,  is well-known as a painter and an engineer.  B.F. Skinner, who made significant contributions to debates in modern psychology, was also an inventor and a tinkerer. Studying the history of technology will enable us to think about both inventors and innovation as part of a ‘big history’ or grand overlapping narrative of the exchange and application of knowledge instead of disjointed episodes of periodic genius. After all, great men and their battles are so overrated.

Most importantly, we need to think historically and critically about technology, emphasizing the broader cultural, economic, and political contexts of technological change over time in various eras of the past. We should be engaged in a broader cross-disciplinary discussion about the complex intellectual demands of a STEM-driven (science, technology, engineering, and math) society. What questions relevant to the human experience should educators and students be engaging if in fact we are in a society supposedly ‘driven’ by technology?  To what extent is humankind advanced and/or hindered by the tools we create? What historical lessons can we derive from technological events of the past to better engage the present as informed citizens, regardless of our level of technological expertise?