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critic / all
ISSN 2603 - 9923



Paper presented @ the III Critic|all Conference and published in its digital proceedings
madrid 26-27 april 2018
https://criticall.es/

#un-thology


Ways of seeing
Seeing the invisible: new perceptions in the history of technology. Carrol Purrsell. 1995
Icon: Journal of the Internatinoal Committee for the History of Technology, vol 1, pp. 9-15

´Ce que nous voyons ne vaut – ne vit – que par ce qui nous regarde.´
-Georges Didi Huberman

Ruth S. Cowan describes in her article ´The Consumption Junction: A Proposal for Research Strategies in the Sociology of Technology´ how what is truly important is not the study of the veracity of ideas, but rather how these affect society (1). If we were to paraphrase society as a collection of subjets, we could argue that value doesnt reside in things themselves, but above all in the representation provoked within ourselves. We could also argue that the construction of our sensibility might depend on this performance.

Cowan´s writing belongs to the book ´The Social Construction of Technological Systems´, published in 1987, which gathered a collection of thirteen articles where new ways of understanding technology -and therefore, its history- were introduced. The book and its authors displayed a new approach to investigation refered to as SCOT (Social Construction of Technology), where the complexity of the technological crucible -its evolution, development and representation-, unfolded as an ocean of social, technical, economical and political ideas. Consequently diffusing the mask belonging to the myth that was in charge of sponsoring a history -of technology- written exclusively by a handful of white men. At the same time, the creation of the technological object was understood as a collaboration of several relevant social groups.

In the same book, Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker crumbled the evolution of the bicycle as a consequence of a sensible and relevant pilgrimage through artisan events. The image of the present artifact -the bicycle- is a byproduct of the incessant answers to the ´problems´ of several social groups; from the production depending on the engineer, up to the skirts of women or the reflexes of the elderly (2.)  Just as in the means of natural selection, the artifact manages its evolution by adapting to the changes in its perception. When the bicycle was, for instance, conceived as a naïve sport-related device -enjoyed by young men-, both the brakes or the lower saddle were not a requirement from any social demand (since the subjects –and the eyes- responsible for such request were not yet at stage). Elder or more cautious people, women, and other figures quite distant from the regular white man archetype, adapted technological representation to make it mirror society. Its evolution was therefore not exclusively driven towards form, but mostly regarded the progress in its perception as an instrument with which to interact with society, and its reflection.

And so it seems that the technological object reveals itself as a work (ouvrage) possesor of a social dimension. The way in which the bicycle is perceived might discuss the space of the absence; the empty space between the subject and the object. The space that lies between what seesand what is seenis suddenly colonized by natural connotations of responsabilityor sensibilitywhen the gaze empathizes withand not just through. To perceive -even an image- is also to build. When the space between the subject and the object is weaven through an expansive design, a change in the cultural scheme and in the conception of the innovative proccess is definitively required.

Underlying the time of the object -apparently neutral- we tend to discover a mirror braided by the people. A dual mirror, projected both into its process and into its usage. In the first place, the infinite development of technology is a consequence of an accumulative and orgasmic dance of determinants and social processes. It doesnt derive from an instantaneous miracle binded to an individual genius -being that the inventor or the architect-. And therefore, its usage blends with the experiences of the user (3).

In ´Seeing the Invisible: new perceptions in the history of technology´, an article published eight years after (1995) the book at hand, Carroll Pursell -a reknowned proffesor of history strongly commited to the aforementioned approaches initiated by Bijker and Pinch (4)- expands the topic into the contemporary biased perception of technology. He emphasizes the privilege of design and production over use and consumption in the current studies of history, and how it therefore leaves out important social groups; Pursell insists on the responsability of breaking with any history of technology which recognizes itself as a manifestation of the masculine atributes of property (5). He advocates for an understanding of the significance of the users experiences, in order for the discourse to include ´things that we dont see and voices that we dont hear.´ If society builds the technological artefact it might also be responsible of its representation.

With this approach the present time could be contemplated as a frozen image between two seas. Accordingly, the actual usage of the artifact could be a consequence of its evolution, while, at the same time, it would actively contribute to it. For this reason, it might be equally relevant to appreciate and recognize the infinite sparkles in charge of shaping the technique and the technological in the past, as the relationship with which we engage today. Being as they are two parts of the same tale.

The impact of the technique -knowledge and instrument- on individuals responds to the close relation of the latter with both dimensions of the first -the consumption in the past and the current use-, through its several subjective manifestations. The habits of historiography -the way and methods through which we study and interpret history- tend to sentence the judgement of the present. If we domesticate and acknowledge a system where the history of technology -past and future- is conceived through a neutrality in its use, where everyone uses and receives the same, we attend the same rancid theatre amongst mechanical drop scenes.

Pursell found ´hoary´ the common and established notion of technological neutrality. In other words; to standardize society through an ideal model of a consumer. He understood that ´our own everyday lives tell us that this is not so´. Several examples in his article back his claim; from the construction of bridges over the Merrit Parkway -so low that public transportation couldnt pass beneath, rejecting therefore the circulation through that area to anyone that didnt own a car-, to the determination of some to emphasize the role of women in the history of technology through the thorough search and emphatic announcement of femenine figures whose surnames rise to the challenge of their masculine counterparts (6). Both examples rise to the point of being considered ambassadors of inequality. Experience is still being refused avoiding the fact that technology -and architecture- relates to process more than to product. The value of production over consumption might keep growing while distracting ourselves with ´formal knowledge´ and abandoning ´common knowledge´ (7).

This seems to imply leveling downconsequences in the development of new technologies. Especially in those technologies that pierce the boundary between the prosthetic technique and the intellectual one. Those that are no longer a mere extension of the physical body, but a projection over the intellectual mind -and soon the emotional self-. An open discussion of the essential qualities of ´humanness´8 might be at stake through the misted glasses of apparent neutrality.

Imagine the last paragraph of the novel from Kazuo Ishiguro ´Never let me go´ as a postcard between two seas, where Kathy -an artificial human- shows her systemic passivity:
“The fantasy never got beyond that -I didnt let it- and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn´t sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off wherever it was I was supposed to be”
Speed is no longer an issue. The car, usually a symbol of freedom, is here rendered as a tool for submission to a fate. Moreover, this artifact will carry the human clone -an elaborate technological reflection of an original human- through the already diminished emotional borders of peoples uniqueness.

Different interpretations of technology indeed express and feed different ideas about the essential qualities of humans. Or as Steve Woolgar wrote in ´Reconstructing Man and Machine: A Note on Sociological Critiques of Cognitivism´: ´Technology may also act as a catalyst for changing conceptions of the nature of man´. Technology as the mirror of men -maybe also reflecting Pursells invisible?-presents itself as a debate. This discussion about the new technology and its nature might indicate that the medium is not the message. Woolgar -who contributed with the second-to-last article to the book above-mentioned- declares how this polemic is redefining the concepts of both man and machine, because to argue about the technological personality is to do so about the social one. Even more since artificial inteligence speaks about artifacts that think. They think and interpret based on the reproduction of reality imprinted from the originality of the human.

We are rehearsing a dialogue far more elaborate than that of the bicycle, even further when the analysis of the two-wheeled vehicle is extrapolated to the quotidian and domestic experience. A dialogue at a thousand voices per second, coexisting in between the echoes of its subtle disagreements. It is overwhelming the speed at which available information -for technology and its artifacts to learn and build a reflection- is multiplied. The perpetual technological innovation is obviously a defining and crucial ingredient in the understanding of living conditions; the web distorts our notion of distance, algorithms blur the concepts of relations (person-person and person-environment) and the virtual flirts with new dimensions of reality. An abyss of opportunity.

I find relevant to bring back a phrase from Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT MediaLab, when in 1980 he warned us about how ´Computing is not about computers anymore. It is about living´. Now the representation of reality multiplies and unfolds so rapidly that it might exceed the natural abilities of the vulnerable human psychology. The subtle polemic over intellectual technology is the ultimate scene in the long-running play about our originality. And at the same time, the ever so strong alliance with the portrayal of neutrality-the imposition of a standarized speed and an inmediate reaction- through the new technologies compels the user to use as a means of production. We tend to forget that usage is a common good that belongs to everyone and to no one.

In the trenches of our emotion(s) -the last bastion of people uniqueness (9)- it is hard to sense the image that reflects the technological mirror. Once these trenches are teared down, it seems easy to imagine the mirror changing sides, and ultimately perceiving our faces as the appearance of the artifact. Our relation with society changes dramatically when the reflection moves forward quicker than the self being reflected; when progress related to the understanding of human cognition turns inmediately into trump cards in favour of the technological industry -having inherited the centralized domination model-.

Romantically facing the destruction of our charm as an aesthetic gift, our experience becomes the production tools of technology.

In the construction of new environments the opportunity for new ways of telling must also be present.



Notes

1.Cowan argues from the beggining of her article on the importance of the ´sociology of technology´ and how ´A properly constituted history of science, they remind us [Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker], should be impervious to the question of wether or not the ideas being examined historically are true or false by current standards.´

-Cowan, Ruth S. “The Cosumption Junction: A Proposal for Research Strategies in the Sociology of Technology” in: Bijker, Wiebe E. & Hughes, Thomas P. & Pinch, Trevor. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1987.


2. The relation between the relevant social groups, the problems, and the solutions in the development process of the Penny Farthing bycicle are displayed in ´Figure 11´ of the book at hand. This chart, for instance, pinpoints the ´safety problem´ presented by the need of the elderly men for it as one of the reasons for the appearance of the brakes or the front fork sloping back that caused the evolution towards the Xtraordinary bycicle model.

-Pinch, Trevor J. & Bijker, Wiebe E. “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or how the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other” in: Bijker, Wiebe E. & Hughes, Thomas P. & Pinch, Trevor. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1987.


3.´It does this by breaking down the distinction between human actors and natural phenomena. Both are treated as elements in "actor networks." Also, this approach ostensibly reverses the usual relationship between participant and analyst and casts the engineers as sociologists. In other words, in trying to extend successfully the actor network, the engineers attempt to mold society.´

-Pinch, Trevor J. & Bijker, Wiebe E. “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or how the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other” in: Bijker, Wiebe E. & Hughes, Thomas P. & Pinch, Trevor. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1987.


4.Carroll Pursell was former president of both the Internatinoal Committee for the History of Technology (ICHOTEC) and the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT).


5.´Specifically, I wish to argue that the history of technology, as currently studied, privileges design over use, production over consumption, and periods of 'change' over those which seem static and traditional. Design, production and active change are seen as more masculine and middle-class. To the extent that we focus on engineers and inventors, factories and periods of 'revolution', therefore, we tend not to see those technologies which do not fit this model, nor hear the voices of women, workers and people of colour whose experience is assumed to be passive rather than active, associated with use rather than design, and with consumption rather than production. A history which leaves out so many people is badly in need of reformation.´

-Pursell, Carroll. 1995. "Seeing the invisible: new perceptions in the history of technology". - Icon: Journal of the Internatinoal Committee for the History of Technology, vol 1: 9-15


6. This task is obviously vital for the acknowledgement and appreciation to the contribution of technology of several great women, but it can not be the only one at hand; it is obvious that because of cultural and contextual reasons at any given time before the late XXth century -if not still- individual women had less of an opportunity to make an impact, so to shed light over just a handful of women, compared to a lot more men, would be to emphasize the difference in quantity and to extend a mentality where the ´white male´ determinants prevail.


7. ´...when we turn to scholarship we sometimes abandon what Evelyn Fox Keller calls 'common knowledge' and distract ourselves with 'formal knowledge'.´

-Pursell, Carroll. 1995. "Seeing the invisible: new perceptions in the history of technology". - Icon: Journal of the Internatinoal Committee for the History of Technology, vol 1: 9-15


8. ´Despite the vigor of the sociological challenge, I suggest thet the sociologists commitment to particular modes of representation ultimately imposes severe limitations on the likely success of their attacks on cognitivism. First, we need to look more closely at the idea of technology as the focus for continuing debates about the essential qualities of ´humanness´.´

-Woolgar, Steve. “Reconstructing Man and Machine: A Note on Sociological Critiques of Cognitivism” in: Bijker, Wiebe E. & Hughes, Thomas P. & Pinch, Trevor. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1987.


9. ´The work of AI, however, attempts to develop a technology that emulates action and peformance previously accredited to unique human intellectual abilities. Consequently, the advent of computers, and of AI in particular, has raised questions about the uniqueness of man in a slightly different form. For example, in some discussions, emotion is now invoked as the category of attributes that testify to man´s uniqueness, just as intellect was invoked when the debate focused on prostethic technologies.´

-Woolgar, Steve. “Reconstructing Man and Machine: A Note on Sociological Critiques of Cognitivism” in: Bijker, Wiebe E. & Hughes, Thomas P. & Pinch, Trevor. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1987.






pointes
ISBN 978 - 84 - 945656 - 4 - 9
Paper published in POINTES . Revista de Arte y Arquitectura
POINTES 2010-2015
ediciones asimetricas 2016

Prólogo


En aquel París hipocondríaco el desorden fue acelerado, pero el eco de Ernest Chesneau atravesó las risas nerviosas:
"...el señor Manet quiere alcanzar la celebridad asombrando a los burgueses."

Entre las muchas ideas geniales aunque torpemente populistas del controvertido Napoleon III destaca su intento de legitimar al jurado del Salón de París abriendo al público las obras rechazadas para la exposición de 1864. Exposición donde Édouard Manet recogió el desprecio de la crítica y del público burgués al presentar una obra que insultó la moralidad del academicismo francés.

Porque puede afirmase, con un suficiente márgen de error, que el entonces irritante anacronismo de ´Le Dejeuner sur l´herbe´ inauguró una relación de honesta esperanza entre la obra de arte y su público – relación que Cezanne y su pandilla potenciarían en seguida con mayor compromiso e intención 1 -. De centelleo a espejo hiperbólico, de condiciones a ilusión. Se cocinaba entonces la virtud de la indefinición propia de nuestro arte. La maniobra del cambio; el paso de una cultura del arte como reflejo categórico de un ritual social a la potencia de la ilusión y el anhelo. Parecía asomar descaradamente el hocico el atrevido íncubo del arte moderno de la mano de Manet (según Greenberg, el primer pintor modernista 2 ), promotor del impresionismo y de todo el guateque que se armó después: absenta en las buhardillas y luz en los pañuelos.

Casi cien años de dicha y esperanza hasta que, más cerca de nuestro tiempo (...)

article available in POINTES 2010-2015





















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