“Shifting Gears,” Technology and Culture
Unsophisticated logic and a lack of in-depth thinking about technological advancement leads to the belief — held by many, I’ve learned in my brief tenure as Dr. Heyck’s teaching assistant — that decisions about what technologies will be adopted are based on that technology’s efficiency, the improvement it offers, and its ability to out-perform its contemporary competitors. This week’s readings soundly denounced that narrative, introducing the many factors that influence a technology’s development, adoption, and appropriation. What technologies are “better” is not always clear and often changes with context, and even then, the “better” technology may require a cultural change inconsistent with its intended beneficiaries. In considering these factors, the contributors to “Shifting Gears” painted a portrait of car technologies’ interactions with institutions, governments, peoples, and developers, and in turn, the way that these interactions affected society, culture, and the technologies themselves.
A word I saw a lot this week was “co-development,” something I think we touched in in class with our discussion of technological determinism and social construction of technology. It refers to the idea, in my understanding anyway, that while engineers and manufacturers are producing a technology, users of that technology are creating cultural practices that make it usable and desirable. Technology and the culture surrounding it thus develop concurrently. In Morris’s piece, the technology and cultural meaning of “extreme car audio” were created around the same time and within one another. The same goes for closed-in cars and their audio technologies in Mom’s work; it became culturally desirable to have a car quiet enough to talk in, a cultural adaptation made possible (and desirable) only after, and because of, noise abatement technologies. In addition, technologies and their cultural constructions are also dynamic and constantly in flux. While hi-fi audio technology was originally designed with the white, middle-class private ride home from work in in mind, proponents of hip-hop counterculture appropriated it for use as an identity amplifier and audio space dominator. Technology changes culture just as culture changes technology.
Looking back to the book on the beetle with the concept of “co-construction” in mind, it seems quite exceptional that the car’s structure remained more or less the same during its long and varied history. How it could be adopted by so many cultures and have retained so much of its original technological (and visual) features is a mystery that Rieger touches on only intermittently and briefly, mostly citing the model’s simplicity and durability as explanations. It is becoming clearer now just how different the methodology used in that book is from mainstream history of technology; the technical aspects of the beetle were described in abstract terms, but the author failed to offer a nitty-gritty account of the inner workings of the vehicle like Mom, Morris, and others do in “Shifting Gears” for their objects of study. This lack of technological depth makes it difficult to uncover how technically altered (or unaltered) the beetle was during its cultural journey, which in turn makes it impossible to understand whether or not it was “co-constructed” as a cultural and technical artifact. How can we understand the conversation between a technology and its users if we are only privy to one side? I now understand why Rieger’s argument was placed firmly on the left side of the white board.
Another takeaway from the issue was that technologies come with infrastructure and culture built in; this can most plainly be seen in Krebs’s account of the difficult integration of diagnostic instruments into the sensory-based craft tradition of German automobile repair. The cultural changes needed to effectively adopt the new repair technology often proved too much for their successful, daily integration into auto repair. A strong craft tradition in Germany meant that the sociotechnical hierarchies that formed the organizational bases for repair shops were constructed around a different method of diagnosis based on sensory input — one that lost out to the American, “objective” system based on instrumentation. The switch from listening to instrument-driven diagnostics meant sociotechnical upheaval to German mechanics, a fact that delayed its implementation by twenty years. Again, we can see that technology is firmly embedded in culture — a change in one necessitates a change in the other, and the reasons for the adoption or abandonment of a technology can often be found not in its technical qualities, but in its cultural effects.
Lastly, technologies’ embedment within society and culture is made manifest in Luckso’s account of changing attitudes surrounding diesel engines. Of particular interest is how the political environment, in a trickle-down effect, influenced the diesel engine’s acceptability. Diesel cars were labeled eco-friendly, but they increasingly became associated with cancer. When the oil crisis was at its worst, public worry about the cancer-causing propensity of the diesel engine was largely forgotten; when this was no longer the case, panic ensued. I found it fascinating how changing political environments, combined with the cultural-scientific attributes the diesel engine acquired, influenced its success as an automotive technology. The culture (and science) that surround a technology can thus contain within it a technology’s fate, regardless of its technical abilities. “Better,” it seems, is in the eyes and culture of the beholder.