Breaking Machines: belief, doubt and the workings of modern technology

Technologies of Making Belief, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 27-29 May, 2015 — Paris

This paper explores the changing faith in machines from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. This was a period dominated by the profusion of technologies – symbolically as metaphors for commerce, politics, nature and the body; cognitively as vehicles of privileged knowledge; materially as instruments of production, destruction and reproduction. With so much riding on these devices, what vouchsafed belief in their proper functioning? And what understandings and anxieties characterized their failure? The paper focuses on the iconic technologies of three periods — the French Revolution, Victorian Britain, and Machine-Age America — to show how faith in the capacities of machines and concerns about their failure were shot through with much wider beliefs: about the nature of chance and fate; about morality and the social order; and about the capacities and frailties of humans. In doing so, the paper argues that the emergence of the idea of reliable machines was bound up with a history of the kinds of people we are understood to be.