Technologies of Power: Essays in Honor of Thomas Parke Hughes and Agatha Chipley Hughes

Chrisanthi Avgerou (Information Systems Department, London School of Economics, London, UK)

Information Technology & People

ISSN: 0959-3845

Article publication date: 1 June 2004




Avgerou, C. (2004), "Technologies of Power: Essays in Honor of Thomas Parke Hughes and Agatha Chipley Hughes", Information Technology & People, Vol. 17 No. 2, pp. 239-242.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Since the early 1990s research in information systems (IS) has gained in conceptual sophistication by borrowing from the socio‐theoretical field of studies known as social construction of technology (SCOT). Most influential have been the sociological and anthropological studies of technology. Judging from the analytical approaches followed and the citations included in recent IS literature, our field is somewhat less familiar with the research of the historians of technology, the issues they address, their analytical approaches, and their contribution within the interdisciplinary field of SCOT. This volume provides an excellent collection of such studies that give a good idea of the work of historians of technology within SCOT.

The book was compiled to celebrate the work of two most influential historians of technology, Thomas Parke Hughes and Agatha Chipley Hughes. Thomas Hughes is widely known for his role in establishing the history of technology field. His rich empirical and theoretical work led to a series of seminal publications, including Networks of Power, American Genesis, and Rescuing Prometheus. Agatha Hughes, as the introductory chapters of this book explain, was an influential figure in Thomas's contributions as his life and work companion. The authors of this volume acknowledge Thomas and Agatha as their mentors and the editors state that the chapters are organized in a way intended to evoke the evolution of their scholarship. The preamble chapter by Staudenmaier provides a summary of the work of Thomas Hughes with helpful commentary on its significance in the study of technology and society. The introduction suggests that the intended readers of the book are historians and its chapters address problems of significance within current “historiographic” debate. As such, they deal with a variety of technologies, diverse social and historical settings, and a range of themes.

The first three chapters focus on cases of the shaping of particular technologies and technology services in the USA. Bernard Carlson discusses the emergence of the telephone technology through the Bell telephone company against the background of an established monopoly for telegraph services. The narrative centres at the role of a powerful man, Gardiner Greene Hubbard and shows the way his intertwined interests and actions as lawyer, entrepreneur, political activist and loving father of a handicapped daughter contributed to promote the telephone from its initial experimental form to a communication industry targeting the middle class market.

Eric Schatzberg, discusses the introduction of electrical street trolleys in American cities. His main concern is to sensitise urban historians that technology is neither just an external factor in the cultural history of cities, nor an uncontested choice of cultural preference. To that end, his case study demonstrates the simultaneous shaping of technology artefacts and cultural meaning through the mediation of politics by tracing the way the choice of electric street cars in the cultural setting of the late eighteenth century American cities was subject to the political struggles of who would bear the costs and reap the benefits of that particular technological change.

Amy Slaton and Janet Abbate's chapter discuss the development of standards at the work place of American organizations. They engage mainly with the concerns of historians of work and seek to show how the development of technology standards implicate tradeoffs of work efforts and responsibility among groups of workers, between industry sectors and between producers and consumers. They do this by studying the emergence of standards in two different areas – construction industry and Internet communication protocols – highlighing evidence that technological choices are not a techno‐economic process of rationalization as they implicate political interest and authority.

The following chapters shift focus to empirical settings and issues of macro‐level analysis, such as the ideology of modernity, professional authority, national identity, and regional geo‐politics. Edmund Todd examines regional differences in the technological electrification infrastructures of Germany in the early nineteenth century. He shows that the choice of electrification technologies, far from following a technological imperative, was subject to the ideological biases of the engineers who developed them. Todd's case study aims at revealing the way three German engineers strove politically, but with a religion‐like belief for a particular future of social structures, to make technology fundamental to decisions regarding the organization of systems of electrification.

Michael Thad Allen's case study addresses the historians’ concern with the notion of modernity and he seeks to debunk the view that technology plays a rationalizing role in the emergence of modern democratic societies by showing the way technology was central in the National Socialist ideology of modernity of Nazi Germany in which it was mobilized to serve the most irrational undertaking of humanity: the Holocaust.

Erik Rau examines the emergence of the field of operational research in the context of British history in the post‐World‐War‐II period in terms of politics for the establishment of professional authority. The chapters by Gabrielle Hecht and Hans Weinberger discuss the way technology was implicated in the national politics of France and Sweden in the Cold‐War era. Specifically, Hecht associate the choice of nuclear reactor technology in France with that country's political struggle to maintain and strengthen its national identity in the context of the Cold‐War super‐power polarity. Weinberger discusses the way technology came to negate the Swedish principle of neutrality in the international relations of the Cold War.

In broad terms, the core message of this stream of history of technology studies is that technology does shape the history of society, but this shaping must always be understood in social as well as technological terms. Social choices shape the development of individual technology artefacts as well as the development and establishment of the technological systems that, endowed with physical, financial, and institutional durability, constitute the infrastructures of modern societies. The materiality of the technology does matter. But, as material manifestations of human choices, technological systems embody, reinforce and enact social and political power. This conception of the technology/society relationship does not break new ground for IS scholars already familiar with the debates in SCOT, but it reinforces an understanding of a socio‐technical relationship that avoids the pitfalls of technological and social determinisms.

A common thread through the chapters of this book is the question of how technology, power, and authority are mutually constituted. I find this concern of particular importance in the effort of IS theory to go beyond the debunking of technological determinism and to elaborate satisfactory analyses accounting for the way IT is implicated in the constitution of contemporary socio‐economic orders. To that end, IS scholars can find useful analogies between the cases of IT innovation in contemporary social settings they study and the narratives on the mutual constitution of technologies and politics in the cases discussed in this book.

Nevertheless, the diverse cases and thematic attention do not amount to a clear conceptual basis for understanding the connections of technology, power and authority. Take for example the concept of ideology, which is used in the analysis of many of these empirical studies. In some chapters it refers to the ideas and motivations that fuel the actions of individuals, such as Hubbard in Carlson's case study, in others to the political aims pursued by national governments, such as the Swedish position of neutrality in the Cold War. There may be a link between these meanings of ideology but it is not explored in here. Also, in most cases the ideas and beliefs of the actors studied are associated with some form of nationalism, whether in the form of American progressivism, the French ambition to regain past glory, German Nazism, or the Swedish ambition not to succumb to the polarity of the two blocks of Cold War superpowers. Is this a coincidental common feature of the cases collected in this book, or an intrinsic aspect of the notion of ideology that is still relevant in today's assumed era of globalization? What other systems of belief and lines of distinction may be packed in the notion of ideology? Religion? Gender? Or is ideology unpredictably context contingent and should be traced without preconceptions in each case under study?

Also one can notice interesting omissions in the cases selected for study. All case discussed here show a mutual reinforcement of ideology and technology: they demonstrate how certain technology development avenues are pursued in relation to particular ideologies, which in turn appear to be consolidated or further unfold through the establishment of the technological systems they fostered. There is no case of technologies that did not find fertile ideological context. Particular technology/ideology instances may have been contested and defeated by others, but overall technology innovation has successfully occured. Nevertheless, endemic technology innovation failure appears to be a common problem in the area of my research, IT in developing countries and I am interested in understanding what might explain technology/ideology alignment or non‐alignment? Are certain ideologies conducive to specific technologies, inimical to others, or none at all?

No answers to such questions can be found in this book. The authors neither elaborate a theoretical position on the nature of ideology nor make references to the literature debating the nature of ideology and power. But without delving into such theoretical fundamentals, the accounts of different cases appear fragmented and isolated. Of course the book succeeds in convincing the reader that the technology/society relationship should be addressed as a process of mutual constitution, which was it main objective, but it then begs questions on the nature of the constituent parts, the conditions under which the virtuous circle of the mutual reinforcement relationship may occur, or the features of the emerging socio‐technical entities.

In short, the chapters of this book are useful for maintaining the challenge to the still dominant techno‐economic discourse, they can make rich cases for classroom discussion, and can be recommended as insightful reading to intellectually curious IS practitioners. For IS scholars already familiar with SCOT, the book is likely to provide the seeds for the crystallization of questions in the search for more satisfactory theoretical foundations of the technology/society relationship. This is not a small achievement for a collection‐of‐articles book.

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