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Schatzberg, Eric, 1956- / Wings of wood, wings of metal : culture and technical choice in American airplane materials, 1914-1945
(1999)

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


Page 17

MATERIALS, SYMBOLS, AND IDEOLOGIES
more, questions of technical efficacy remain central to understanding past
technologies.
As an unexamined assumption, however, instrumentalism imposes con-
siderable burdens on the history of technology. More than anything else, the
instrumentalist assumption separates technology from other domains of
human endeavor. In instrumentalist terms, a technology is judged solely by
its efficacy in serving specific ends and not as a product of meaningful
human action.32 By isolating technology from the sphere of meaning, instru-
mentalism also separates technology from culture, exiling culture to the
periphery of technical change, where it speaks only to ends while remaining
silent on means.
There are two basic arguments for demonstrating the inadequacy of in-
strumentalism, one "strong" and the other "weak." The strong argument
asserts that symbolism is implicated in all human action, including tech-
nical action. In this form of the argument, purely instrumental action is
impossible because the very criteria used to determine if an action is instru-
mental, criteria like efficiency and efficacy, are themselves symbolic con-
structs whose meaning varies with time and place.33 The weak argument, in
contrast, starts from within the concept of instrumental reason itself, dem-
onstrating that the process of technical choice is itself indeterminate. This
concept of technical indeterminacy means simply that an artifact or techni-
cal process is only in part determined by the application of technical knowl-
edge to particular human purposes. Even given clearly specified objectives,
the requisite empirical data and relevant scientific theories, a designer still
has considerable freedom to choose the form of the artifact. Although I
subscribe to both forms of the argument, I prefer the version based on tech-
nical indeterminacy The argument from indeterminacy encourages a more
direct engagement with the technical arguments themselves while also cre-
ating a basis for dialogue with defenders of instrumentalism.
The concept of technical indeterminacy has received support from socio-
logical theories of technical change, most importantly the approach termed
"social construction of technology.'34 Using arguments derived from the
sociology of knowledge and the post-empiricist philosophy of science, the
social constructivists make the idea of technical indeterminacy a key prem-
ise. In a seminal article, Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker focus on the "inter-
pretive flexibility" of artifacts, which means "not only that there is flexibility
in how people think of, or interpret, artefacts, but also that there is flexibil-
ity in how artefacts are designed." Donald MacKenzie describes the same
concept as "contingency of design." By emphasizing the indeterminacy of
design, the social constructivists have opened up technical change to a vari-
ety of explanatory strategies, including those that focus on competing inter-
est groups, state power, gender relations, and power struggles on the shop
floor.15


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