Technologies, as Thomas P. Hughes argued in ‘American Genesis’, could have a formative influence on industrialised societies, especially so as they constituted ‘large technological systems’ during the 19th and 20th centuries, including norms and institutions besides the technological artefacts themselves. A second perspective on relationships between technologies and societies was suggested by Helmuth Trischler and Robert Bud. They argued that technologies could be shaped to a large degree by public debates, turning them into ‘public technologies’. With this workshop, we aim to explore a third perspective on technologies and their relations to societies. We want to focus on technologies that became connected to societal characteristics or changes which themselves were so broad that they were difficult to argue about in their own right. In other words, we are looking for technologies that were, consciously or unconsciously, turned into symbols or manifestations of societal conflicts with a view to render those conflicts tangible; technologies that could be called ‘transformative technologies’. Two examples may serve to clarify the concept:
Around the end of the 19th century the bicycle developed a conspicuous presence on the roads of the day. The more and more common vehicle was not only debated as a road user with specific upsides and downsides regarding its qualities as a means of transport, though. Various commentators linked it, for example, with an ongoing debate about nerves and forms of nervousness, some claiming it would excite and stimulate people way too much. Others saw it as a therapeutic tool on par, as one doctor put it, with the day’s famous sanatoriums or mineral spas, while bicycling too much and especially too fast was not only debated as a symptom of a ‘nervous age’, but also the cause for nervous breakdowns.
Another example for a transformative technology is nuclear energy. In many western, industrialised countries, it provoked one of the most intense societal debates during the second half of the 20th century, in some cases reaching or even crossing the border to civil unrest. The conflicts splitting societies in two inconsolable camps were not about the technology alone. In France, as Gabriele Hecht showed, nuclear energy was intimately entwined with the country’s elites’ perception of French greatness. Margret Gowing hinted at similar motives for Britain’ nuclear politics. In other countries, topics ranging from the relationship to nature to the societal role of experts or even the democratic character of the state itself became connected with atomic energy, on purpose in some cases, but not all, sometimes by the proponents of nuclear power, and sometimes by its critics.
Beyond those examples, technologies as diverse as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, social media or even developments as seemingly mundane as naval armament, around 1900 intimately connected with national grandeur, can be seen as transformative technologies.
With this workshop we want to establish the usefulness and boundaries of transformative technology as a concept to analyse the relationships between technologies and societies. We are looking forward to contributions that either focus on theoretical and methodical questions regarding the concept of transformative technologies, or provide case-studies of different transformative technologies, including or expanding upon the examples mentioned above.
Proposals for papers are invited from those working in the fields and sub-fields of history and science and technology studies. Please send an abstract of not more than 500 words along with a short biographical statement to TransformativeTechnologies@Deutsches-Museum.de until July 20th 2019.
We aim to stimulate active exchange by the participants. To do so, final drafts of papers will be required until January 12th 2020 and will then be circulated to the participants in advance. At the workshop itself, we will discuss the papers based upon short input reports.
The workshop is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.
Travel and accommodation costs will be reimbursed in compliance with BRKG.