Monday, October 18, 2010

The Clash of Civilizations and the History of Technology

Posted by Babak Ashrafi on 10/18 at 01:25 PM

One of the sessions at the 2010 meeting of the Society for the History of Technology was called “Kabul to Kolkata and Beyond: The Clash of Civilizations and History of Technology.” There were three speakers: Captain Mark Hagerott of the United States Naval Academy.  Hagerott got his Ph.D. in history of technology from the University of Maryland and now teaches History at the Naval Academy.  He served in Kabul, Afghanistan helping to organize the training of Afghan police and armed forces.  I was the second speaker.  The third was Robert Friedel who teaches at UMD and has for 15 years taught history of science and technology to museum curators in Kolkata, India.  Bill Leslie of JHU chaired the session.

The session was instigated by Hagerott.  He feels that NATO forces trying to train Afghanis and modernize the whole country could use the kinds of insights that historians of technology have to offer about technological change and its relations to cultural contexts and social structures.  One problem is that some of the modernization projects in Afghanistan are based on a strong faith in technological determinism:  If we build modern technological systems in Afghanistan, the Afghanis will use them much like we do, and in the process become more like us.  Both sides seem to share this faith.  While NATO forces are furiously building and installing modern technology such as telecommunications systems, the Taliban are doing their best to destroy and disrupt them.  Beyond that, the details of how NATO can achieve its goals seemed more murky.  Will Afghanis use, appropriate or modify modern technologies?  If so, how?  What social structures will be (need to be) co-produced along with these technological systems in order for them to be adopted and maintained?  How can a historian of technology communicate an awareness of such complexities to planners and policy makers?

Friedel conveyed a very different experience based on his teaching in India.  He feels that India has a clear national commitment to embracing modern science and technology.  The tensions about technological change in India have to do with their distinctive cultural heritage(s) vs. modernization vs. westernization.  All of these issues are in play in India’s efforts to teach audiences of all ages about science and technology in its network of science centers and museums—institutions run by the curators that Friedel teaches.

My own contribution was to look at how the “clash of civilizations” has played out in American academia and the very different ways that trope has functioned in public discourse in America.  I proposed a few question that might be interesting for historians of technology and science, now that the military-academic-industrial complex that thrived during the Cold War is born again.

One theme that was common to all our talks was how historians of technology, or scholars in the humanities more generally, can engage with audiences who are not in our own professions.  There seems to be a hierarchy of decreasing effectiveness in communication:  Its easy to multiply examples of public figures stringing together metaphors that very effectively evoke fear and anger (never mind that some commitment to integrity of evidence or reasoning would undermine the metaphors); Policy makers offer plans formulated as “To achieve effect X implement cause Y”; Scholars in the humanities are often reduced to something like, “Well, it’s complicated.”

I have an example or two of humanities scholars who have had a discernible impact on public discussions—mostly because their arguments resonate with some kind of public anxiety or fear, and their arguments are easy to convert to evocative metaphors.  I wish I had more and better examples…

Tags: technology, modernization, public understanding


Comment posted by awolfe on 10/18 at 01:54 PM

Care to share the examples of humanities scholars influencing public discussions? And how far are you willing to extend the label of “scholars”?

Comment posted by Babak Ashrafi on 10/18 at 03:05 PM

Let me hold off on examples to see if anyone else has any, rather than debating mine.

As for a definition of scholars, it’s a group of peers who recognize each others’ work as, well, scholarly in some specific field—as marked by publication in one of a handful of peer-reviewed journals or book series, or in some other way participating in that discursive community. 

I don’t know if we need a precise definition of “scholar”, but your question is nonetheless the right one.  However the boundary is drawn, as individual scholars become more professional, as scholars define and refine their individual intellectual niche, as scholars master and internalize the discursive conventions of their peers, what happens to their capacity to effectively engage other audiences?

Comment posted by Darin on 10/19 at 10:25 PM

You mention humanities scholars, which I assume includes historians of science/medicine/technology. Is there something about humanities scholars that makes them particularly susceptible to this isolation? Steven Shapin has spoken about this issue as it relates to what he calls the hyper-professionalization in the history of science. Mainstream historians don’t seem, at first glance, to suffer as much as historians of science.

Do you think social scientists (political scientists or sociologists or anthropologists) and scientists have similar difficulties in speaking to and engaging with broader audiences? Do other humanities scholars, e.g., art historians or literary scholars?

It seems to me that historians of science have surrendered an important space when they decided not to engage in publish discourse, to bring their training to bear on questions about the relationship between science and politics, policy, economics, law, culture, etc.

What are the benefits and drawbacks to this refusal or reticence?

Comment posted by sorin10 on 12/04 at 12:09 PM

Interesting subject,I don’t hear about something like that before read your article.Will be great if you can add more information.Thanks!
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