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Schatzberg, Eric, 1956- / Wings of wood, wings of metal : culture and technical choice in American airplane materials, 1914-1945
(c1999)

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


Page 19

MATERIALS, SYMBOLS, AND IDEOLOGIES                                  19
of technology based on such an approach, one that he termed the "symbolic
construction of technology." According to Staudenmaier, works falling
under this rubric argue that a technology succeeds "in part because it has
achieved ... compelling symbolic status within the culture's affective and
cognitive frames of reference."42
Staudenmaier's analysis points to symbolism as a key concept linking
culture with technical choice, based on the recognition that technologies
have symbolic meanings as well as material effects.43 Indeed, cultural histo-
rians have not ignored the symbolic dimensions of technology. Over the
past three decades, they have produced a substantial literature that focuses
on the cultural significance of technologies from sewers to airplanes.44
For the most part, however, this attention to culture has not influenced
the study of technical choice itself. Most cultural historians treat technolo-
gies like the stars, whose rich symbolic meanings have not changed their
material characteristics. Technologies are not natural objects, however, but
rather the products of human choices. These choices involve more than
rational calculation or the play of social forces. Like all human choice, tech-
nical choices are the result of interpretations shaped by systems of symbolic
meanings. In this way, symbolism directly influences technical change.45
Symbols form systems of meaning, interpretive frameworks that guide
human action.46 Such frameworks provide the preconditions necessary for
all understanding and are not necessarily distorting. Symbolic systems can,
however, become sources of distortion when linked to relations of power
and forms of domination. In this context, symbolic systems become ideolo-
gies. While the classic type of ideology is political, the symbolic meanings
of technology are also subject to ideological distortion as much as symbolic
meanings in the political sphere. As symbolic systems, ideologies of tech-
nology shape technical choice just like more "neutral" design traditions. But
in contrast to design traditions, which merely direct attention toward cer-
tain types of solutions, ideologies of technology promote the active suppres-
sion of particular alternatives.47
David Noble provides a paradigmatic example of such influence in his
analysis of the development of numerically controlled machine tools after
World War II. In Noble's account, the Air Force, MIT, and General Electric
favored the development of complex, digitally programmed devices that
tended to remove expertise from the machinist on the shop floor. At the
same time, these organizations repeatedly rejected the alternative record-
playback technology, despite its promise to provide cheaper, user-friendly
devices better suited to the vast majority of small machine shops. Record-
playback systems did not fail because of technical inadequacies, according
to Noble. Within the ideological framework of the military-university-
industrial complex, the record-playback system did not represent an accept-
able solution, in part because it permitted too much control to remain with


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