I study the social and cultural life of machines, focusing on the intertwined histories of nature, technology, and social order in modern Europe and North America. My research is particularly interested in understanding what technological failures reveal about the historical place of machines and machine behaviors in the fabric of modern societies. I also develop digital and artifact-based methods and computational tools for investigating that history. Here’s a description of the projects that I’m currently working on.
RELIABLE HUMANS / TRUSTWORTHY MACHINES: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGICAL FAILURE
This project examines how modern observers from the late-18th to the mid-20th centuries saw the failure of machines as a problem of the self — a problem of the kinds of people that failing machines created, threatened, or presupposed. The project focuses on three prominent case studies: 1) anxieties about the fallibility of the guillotine in Revolutionary France; 2) concerns over the nature of railway accidents in Victorian Britain; and 3) worries about industrial breakdowns in Progressive-Era America. Rather than isolated episodes, the case studies track—through space, time, and specific technologies—a genealogy of our contemporary understandings for how and why machines fail. Together, they pursue three aims: I) to investigate how and why modern observers understood, explained, and represented machine failures; II) to identify sources for a broader history of technological failure; and III) to explore the history of failing machines as a cultural history of the modern self.
BREAKING MACHINES: A HISTORY OF THE TECHNOLOGICAL SELF
This project explores how and why “reliability” went from being a property of people to a virtue of mechanisms. Its key finding is that technological reliability emerged at the intersection of evolving technical theories about machine “perfection” and historically-specific concerns over the technological self. Taking a long view of its subject, the study begins with the French Revolutionary project of building unfailing machines, situating them at the intersection of the contemporary mechanical arts, 18th-century sentimentalism, and concerns about the collapse of the Old Regime’s corporatist structures; it traces those ideas through 19th-century French descriptive geometry and machine theory, changing understandings of “accident” in industrial machinery, and concepts of “freedom” and “tolerance” in British and German engineering. It concludes with the rise of reliability engineering in mid 20th-century America and the politically-resonant attempts to locate reliability itself at the intersection of cybernetics, neurology, electrical engineering and probabilistic logic.
To explore how we might produce alternative histories, I organized a conference in May 2013: “Materiality: Objects and Idioms in Historical Studies of Science and Technology.” The aim of the conference was to explore materiality as both historical object and emerging idiom in our field. On one hand, we sought to push into new sites of inquiry: How do we historicize materiality? When does materiality become a concern for historical actors and for scholars? How do the specific, local materialities of scientific and technical work figure in the wide-scale sweep of historical developments? But alongside new sites and questions, we set out to explore emerging research tools and modes of scholarly expression that moved beyond traditional text into sounds, visuals and objects.
I’m continuing my research in this area with projects designed to complement the sophisticated text-based methods of history of science and technology with research tools and practices centred on material artifacts. It is part of a broader move within the humanities and social sciences that seeks to use objects as a way of gaining insights that are either difficult or impossible to acquire through a traditional emphasis on the written word.
Extending Objects — investigates techniques for reproducing artifacts at remote locations. The artifacts themselves will function as the centrepieces for a research program in the history of technological failure, as well as for graduate training in the field of history of science and technology. The project will create an open-source infrastructure for investigating these issues, and hopes to benefit museums and cultural institutions. A close collaboration with the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) will furnish artifacts and expertise for the project, as well as a test site for the resulting infrastructure.
Mapping Technologies — utilizing recent advances in data visualization, this projects seeks to “map” the complex connections between material artifacts and the historical conditions that helped create them. Working with databases from the CSTM and colleagues at Western University, the project will assemble a set of visualization tools enabling researchers to represent graphically both the genealogies of individual objects and their historical place in broader networks of concepts, materials, practices and people.