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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 18

18                                                     CHAPTER ONE
The concept of technical indeterminacy predates the work of Pinch and
Bijker, however, and can be demonstrated without recourse to the sociology
of knowledge. Historians of technology have long argued that technical
change involves a creative, artistic component that cannot be reduced to a
set of propositional rules.36 More directly, the organizational theorist
Donald Schon has argued that technical indeterminacy results from inevi-
table uncertainties in the design process, uncertainties produced by in-
complete knowledge.37 Design theorist David Pye arrives at the same result
from the opposite direction. While Sch6n suggests that the design process
is underdetermined due to incomplete knowledge, Pye argues that the pro-
cess is overdetermined due to inevitable conflicts among the technical crite-
ria. According to Pye, the desirable characteristics of any designed object are
incompatible. Since the requirements are incompatible, the object cannot be
"the logical outcome of the requirements." The designed object represents
a compromise among the conflicting requirements, which implies that the
designer has to choose which requirements will fail to be met and the extent
of the failure.38
Airplane engineers and designers recognized the inevitability of conflict
among design requirements and the resulting necessity for compromise.
According to T. P Wright, the chief engineer of the airplane division of the
Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Company:
It sometimes seems that there exists no element of design which does not conflict
directly with every other element. Conflicts, requiring compromises, exist be-
tween such important elements as weight saving and structural strength; between
weight saving and low production cost; high performance and commodious fuse-
lage size; high cruising speed and low landing speed; high power loading and low
operating expense; and many others.
Other aeronautical engineers echoed Wright's observations.39
Technical indeterminacy reveals the insufficiency of the instrumentalist
premise. Technical criteria cannot by themselves dictate the choice among
alternatives. On what basis, then, do engineers and designers choose? They
are neither efficiency-maximizing automatons nor passive pawns of social
forces. Rather, designers base technical choices on an interpretive under-
standing of the design criteria and context, an understanding mediated by
culture, where culture is defined as a system of symbols and practices that
people use to make sense of their world.40
The concept of technical indeterminacy opens the door to culture, but
culture still needs to be invited inside. Recently, a number of scholars in
science and technology studies have proposed doing just that, broadening
the social-constructivist approach by integrating culture into accounts of
scientific and technological change. In a review article on the history of
technology, John Staudenmaier identified an emerging theme in the history

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