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Schatzberg, Eric, 1956- / Wings of wood, wings of metal : culture and technical choice in American airplane materials, 1914-1945

1. Materials, symbols, and ideologies of progress,   pp. [3]-21

Page 16

16                                                      CHAPTER ONE
history, that is, to show that cultural factors directly shape the details of
technical change. The relevance of culture has been obscured by the domi-
nant assumption that technology is a form of instrumental rationality, a
process of matching means to given ends. But instrumentalism fails to
provide an adequate account of technical choice, because technical choice
always possesses significant indeterminacy with regard to technical criteria.
This indeterminacy opens technical change to the influence of culture, most
notably culture conceived in terms of symbolic meanings that play a di-
rect role in technical choice. But symbolism is not neutral; it can become
linked with systems of power in a way that distorts understanding and
restricts human choices. In such cases, symbolic systems become ideolo-
gies, and these ideologies can exert a powerful influence on technical
Over the past thirty years, historians of technology have become tremen-
dously more sophisticated in producing hardware histories, the detailed ac-
counts of changes in technological artifacts and processes. Unlike the old
hardware history, epitomized by Robert Woodbury's Studies in the History of
Machine Tools, this "new hardware history" is thoroughly informed by con-
textualist historiography, situating the development of specific artifacts
within larger institutional and social contexts. The new hardware history
has produced nuanced accounts of invention and engineering design, re-
vealing clearly the ambiguous role of scientific knowledge, the uncertainties
accompanying technical choices, and the social processes involved in tech-
nical change. Historical research inspired by the sociology of scientific
knowledge has taken this process even further, convincingly demonstrating
the indelibly social and political character of the most recondite and scien-
tific modem technologies.29
Yet despite this theoretical and empirical sophistication, most hardware
history remains marginal to mainstream history and social theory This mar-
ginality is rooted in a powerful presupposition contained within the very
concept of technology itself, instrumentalism. According to sociologist
Mark Shields, this "instrumentalist presupposition" consists of the premise
that technologies are rationally determined means applied to given ends. In
this view, technology is governed by a utilitarian logic in which categories
like efficiency and profitability determine the course of technical change.
Successful technologies are therefore those best adapted to the ends they
serve. Although the purposes of technology may vary with time and culture,
technology as means is merely the expression of a universal logic of practice,
constrained only by limitations in knowledge and resources.30
As a first approximation, the instrumentalist premise provides a reason-
able explanation for most technological change. After all, instrumentalism
reflects the official doctrine of the technical professions, which insist upon
their ability to match means to ends within an area of expertise.3' Further-

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