Monday, June 23, 2003

Reading:: Shaping Technology / Building Society

Originally posted: Mon, 23 Jun 2003 02:26:44

Shaping Technology / Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change
by Wiebe Bijker (Editor), John Law (Editor)

I keep intending to read something by Wiebe Bijker, who gets mentioned a lot whenever people talk about the sociology of technology, the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), the rhetoric of science and technology, etc. So when I noticed that he edited this frequently cited volume with John Law, I decided I had to pick it up.

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about this collection. Some of the essays are very good, and I'll doubtless end up photocopying them and citing them. In particular, standouts include the essay on the TRS-2 aircraft by Callon and Law (better than the later book project, reviewed below); Geoff Bowker's study of Schlumberger, a company with which I interned in 1997 and 1998 (Bowker's study also turned into a book project); and a couple of really strong linked essays by Madeleine Akrich and Bruno Latour. The latter essays come with a coauthored glossary with an inordinate number of words based on "script." Akrich and Latour's separate essays have a lot to say about user-centered design and the relationship between designers and users, and in fact I wish I had read them as I was revising my book manuscript -- but no matter, I can use them later.

(I think that Latour's essay is either a previous or a later draft of the one that shows up in Ecologies of Knowledge, ed. Susan Leigh Star. Since I'm reading that book now, I'll check and report back.)

So lots of these essays are good. Why should I feel ambivalent about the collection as a whole? Mostly, I think, because I feel like I'm reading the same story over and over. We approach an established technology (fluorescent light, steel, a patent) and as we investigate the historical record, behold! It turns out that politics, society, alliances, etc. were even more important than technological superiority when it came to establishing the dominant technology. Some of the essays go a bit farther than that, of course, such as Akrich, but the basic plot seemed to hold with nearly every one of the essays. It's like reading the collected works of Piers Anthony, only without the retarded sexuality.

As a historical document, though, the collection is very interesting in that it illustrates some of the later critiques of the sociology of science and technology that are made by Latour, Law, etc. The editors and many of the authors explicitly argue that we must balance the work of technology AND sociology; the book's motto might as well be "don't forget the social dimension." And in that sense it's a breath of fresh air to read the Akrich and Latour pieces, which take the "radical" (according to the editors) position of symmetry. Latour does this most explicitly, but Akrich demonstrates it more systematically from empirical data. Forget this business about society and technology, they argue, and recognize that there is no separating the two -- each is implicated in the other, not in the crude sense of Marx's "dead labor," but in a more complex, interactive, and dynamic way.

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