Thursday, September 02, 2004

Reading :: Science on the Run

Originally posted: Thu, 02 Sep 2004 22:51:12

Science on the Run: Information Management and Industrial Geophysics at Schlumberger, 1920-1940

by Geoffrey C. Bowker

I have some nostalgia for this book. In 1997, while a PhD candidate at Iowa State University, I obtained a summer internship at Schlumberger Well Services in Austin. By the end of the summer, I was sure that I wanted to continue with the sort of research I had done there -- qualitative studies of knowledge work -- and I was also sure I wanted to end up in Austin. (It took a few years, but I reached both goals.)

When I returned to Ames, I ran across Bowker's book Science on the Run, an examination of how Schlumberger began and how it carved out a place as a technological innovator. At the time, I wasn't familiar with Bowker's work; I was just interested in Schlumberger and in the insights that this study of early research practice might inform my more recent study of software development practice. I quite clearly remember reading the book while waiting outside Rebecca Burnett's office to talk about the dissertation project.

Returning to it now, I find that I'm better equipped to appreciate it. Science on the Run is a study of the copious Schlumberger archives; it attempts to answer how Schlumberger developed its applied science while fighting for market share in a relatively new market. That market was logging oil wells; the question was whether advanced and innovative methods could provide better insight than simply drilling by guesswork. And Schlumberger's answer was to form electrical currents in the shafts, record the results, and use them to describe the strata through which the shaft extended. This was a fairly straightforward method except for the fact that, strictly speaking, it didn't work.

Let's qualify that, because the really important thing about this book is its discussion of how a locally contingent method became "bootstrapped" into a universal one. The electronic logging performed by Schlumberger worked quite well in the localized environments in which it was developed. However, geological features vary quite a bit from place to place, and consequently methods were not universally applicable: methods that worked wonderfully well in the lab (in a bathtub at the Ecole des Mines in Paris) or in one field (the played-out Pechelbronn, located near the Schlumberger family home) did not work as well in different geological areas (such as the southern US in the 1920s). Rival methods, such as seismic methods, carried the day in that arena because oil in those US fields was often bound up in salt domes, located easily by seismic methods but poorly by electrical ones. Schlumberger's methods were localized and contingent -- as all are -- but they had to be made to appear universal and able to reveal nature. Bowker engagingly discusses how that work was done: by cultivating successes in post-revolutionary Russia, where western technologies and electrical methods had positive associations, and where Schlumberger could act as a broker for other methods; in Venezuela, where oil companies would construct their own road, electrical, and pipeline networks to route around the local and turn the world into a suitable laboratory; and finally back to the United States, when seismic methods had failed to work in particular terrains and electrical methods had improved enough to function in a broader range of formations. Bowker also covers the patent battles, secrecy, deception, and espionage that attends such high-stakes, cutting-edge research. In this account, nature, society, science, and politics are reunited and demonstrated as part of the same activity.

A few points that are most relevant to my current work here. I was surprised and happy to find a precedent for the way I've been using a particular term:

From the point of view of the network builders themselves -- and from the point of view of a formal description of their networks -- there was no distinction between the act of organizing humans and that of organizing nonhumans; both sets of entities had to be aligned within the same network. I call this process of alignment convergence. (p.46)

Yes, "convergence" is a good term for describing how heterogeneous elements are spliced together in often unusual juxtapositions. And examining these heterogeneous, converged networks leads Bowker to what I have elsewhere called integrated scope:

In short, we should expect to find the same regularities at each level of granularity of the network -- from the micro level of individual operators, electrodes, and drillers' mud to the macro level of the oil industry as a whole and the social organization of campsites. The strategies are the same because in network terms almost exactly the same sort of thing is being done. (p.47)

In a previous review, I've already discussed Bowker's insights into the building of networks in Venezuela: pipelines, roads, electricity grids, and air networks were built to effectively route around local conditions, obviating them in terms of Schlumberger's operation (p.77). Bowker expands on that theme here, though this chapter is largely the same as that earlier article.

One other thing. In my investigation of telecommunication in the US, I've become really interested in the notion of universal service, a concept that has shifted quite a bit and that was originally developed by AT&T to ensure their monopoly status. Similarly, following Bijker and Pinch, Bowker discusses "trajectories," "something that can only exist after the fact, as a historical construction" (p.18). For instance, in the 1930s, the inelastic demand for oil (greater supplies did not lead to greater consumption) meant that big oil companies had to coordinate "to manage prices and output," without falling afoul of the Sherman Antitrust laws. The result was an interest in conservation of "a dwindling, precious natural resource" (p.71). In today's market, with ever-rising levels of consumption, the construct is no longer needed to manage production -- but now it has taken on a life and a meaning of its own. Another example is that of the State of California, whose legislature became convinced of the efficacy of electrical logging and made it obligatory. "Schlumberger had finally succeeded in laying down a natural law, so the legislature laid down a social law to back it up" (p.103). The clarity with which Bowker discusses this point is characteristic of the entire book.

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