The responses are predictable. To most undergraduates, technology means the machines and devices around them — cars, laptops, smart phones and, yes, lightbulbs. At the end of term, I ask them the question again. Take one example — technical standards. Without these, interchangeable parts and global trade would have been practically impossible.
Largely ignored, often invisible, standards created stability in technological systems. Establishing standards meant making consensus via some sort of political process. It took the action of national organisations to override resistance. As political artefacts, standards embody certain ideologies. For the internet, it is an aspiration towards openness — open systems, open access, open source. In the US, this ideology has deep historical roots. The philosopher Langdon Winner argued in that artefacts have politics, beliefs and assumptions about the world and society that are embedded and written into their very fabric.
Efficiency, therefore, is not some timeless universal value but something grounded deeply in particular historical circumstances. Central among these is a pervasive ideology — the quest for efficiency — that runs throughout past and present industrial revolutions. The quest for greater efficiency and rational operations flowed from the automatic flour mill that Oliver Evans patented in to the stopwatch-obsessed scientific managers who applied their techniques to the management of factory and home.
Capitalist and communist systems alike embraced it, competing to outdo one another in productivity and efficiency. Efficiency enabled the civilised to control the savage. At various times, efficiency was a way of quantifying machine performance — think: steam engines — and an accounting principle coupled to the new applied sciences of mechanics and thermodynamics. It was also about conservation and stability.
By the early 20th century — the apogee of Taylorism — experts argued that increases in efficiency would realise the full potential of individuals and industries. Dynamism and conservatism worked together in the pursuit of ever-greater efficiency. But a broad look at the history of technology plainly shows that other values often take precedence over efficiency, even in the modern era.
It would, for example, offer several advantages in efficiency if, instead of every apartment or home having its own kitchen, multiple families shared a communal kitchen, and indeed in some parts of the world they do. But in the prevalent ideology of domesticity, every family or even single person must have their own kitchen, and so it is.
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Nor, despite what Silicon Valley-based techno-libertarians might argue, does technological change automatically translate to increased efficiency. Sometimes, efficiency — like the lone eccentric innovator — is not wanted. In the s, for instance, the US military encouraged metal-working firms, via its contracting process, to adopt expensive numerically controlled machine tools. However, the new machines — ones that smaller firms were hard-pressed to adopt — increased centralisation of the metalworking industry and, arguably, diminished economic competition.
Imperatives besides efficiency drove technological change. The history of technological change is full of examples of roads not taken.
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There are many examples of seemingly illogical choices made by firms and individuals. The physical reality of technologies settles over time, like sediment. Over time, technologies, like mountains or old cities, form layers that a geologist might conjure and a historian can try to understand.
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Technologies stack. Look at this painting:. Here, liberty glides forward across the North American continent. Settlers follow in her wake.
Natives and nature scatter before her. She holds a telegraph cable and unspools it alongside the tracks of an advancing railway. On one hand, this is a portrait of American manifest destiny. As the historian of computing Nathan Ensmenger puts it, geography shapes technology and vice versa.
In the early 20th century, the Southern Pacific was one of the largest railroad companies in the US. By , the company and its subsidiaries operated more than 13, miles of track. In the s, a unit of Southern Pacific maintained a series of microwave communication towers along its railway lines.
Microwave communications gave way to a network of fibre-optic cables laid along railway tracks. Around , the Southern Pacific Communications Company began providing a long-distance phone service. When this split from the larger railroad company, the firm needed a new name. As they layer and stack, technologies persist over time. For instance, 19th-century Japan was a world where steam and sail, railroads and rickshaws all shared common space.
Industrial revolutions were distributed unequally in place and time. This is the world, still, today. It is lumpy and bumpy, with old and new technologies accumulating on top of and beside each other. Our prevailing focus on the shock of the technological new often obscures or distorts how we see the old and the preexisting. Sending telegrams years ago was too expensive for most people. For decades, the telegraph was a pricey, elite technology.
However, what was innovative for the majority of people c was cheap postage. So, during the heyday of the so-called Victorian internet, transoceanic postal systems made communication cheap, reliable and fast. The flow of information grew significantly more accessible and democratic. Although hard to imagine today, bureaucrats and business leaders alike spoke about cheap postage in laudatory terms that resemble what we hear for many emerging technologies today.
By not seeing these older technologies in the past, we stand in danger of ignoring the value and potential of technologies that exist now in favour of those about to be. If we maintain a narrow and shallow view of innovation, notions of making new stuff too easily predominate. In the s, the insurance executive-turned-entrepreneur George Eastman and his colleagues invented new types of photographic film. This film was easier to use and develop but, still, sales were stagnant. Then Eastman had the idea of going for the untapped market of people who wanted to try photography but found it intimidating.
This is absurd.
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Revising our sense of what technology is — or who does innovation — reshapes and improves our understanding of what a technology company is. One cause of this confusion, I believe, stems from our decades-long fascination with Silicon Valley: once a romance, it now has all the hallmarks of a dysfunctional relationship. One must tread carefully here, of course. Unfortunately, some technology pundits ignore this diversity and reduce Silicon Valley to a caricature landscape of disruptive startups.
The Foxconn workers in Shenzhen who assemble iPhones and other high-tech devices certainly see it that way. So do maps of the internet that represent its complex physical infrastructure as a network of disembodied nodes and flowcharts.
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