Science & Religion: A Global Perspective

This week’s readings took on a more global perspective, offering an increasingly holistic picture of what the relationship between science and religion — and the academic analysis of it — looks like. As was expressed in class, religions other than Christianity and locales outside the West have received scant attention from historians of science, and the extant scholarship reflects this in its lack of depth and consideration of actors outside the European infrastructures that colonialism imposed upon its subjects. That being said, scholarship must start somewhere, and the work that has been done contains merit, particularly as a model for further research in the area.

Sivasandaram’s piece in Science and Religion, while commendable in its treatment of commonly neglected areas of study in the field, does not provide such an example. While his conception of global history, defined as “a label of historical methodology indicating analysis of broad patterns and connections across space,” offers a good starting point for non-Western histories, he fails to successfully write a non-Western history. Most of the actors in his narrative are Western, giving the impression that those receiving “science” from their colonizers were a relatively passive audience, ready to reformulate their religious convictions in light of the knowledge bestowed up on them. He does leave room for diversity of opinion and belief among the native population, acknowledging that the response to European science was varied, but even as he expresses this, most of the voices in his story are Western ones. He does not provide much cultural, political, or historical context in which to situate the native narrative. He does, however, suggest that in cultures that do not have native educational institutions, different methods than the one he employs will be required. In the end, what Sivasandaram has to offer is a Western-centric view of the relationship between Western science and native religions.

In contrast, Weldon and Yoshida’s discussion of science in the East Asian countries of China, Japan, and India provides a better model for extending the study of science and religion out of the Western context. They provide ample background — historical, cultural, and political — that bring vitality to the population whose interactions with science they are attempting to understand. They spend more time discussing the philosophies of the religions they cover, and the voices are almost entirely Asian ones. The reader can see how cultural and religious authorities were integrating or rejecting the science their Western contemporaries were exposing them to, and equally importantly, can understand the unique, local reasons, in addition to the intellectual ones, why they were or were not doing so. That being said, the lack of lay voices — a demographic that can be accessed, in one way, through their integration or rejection of Western medicine — is noticeable.

I am, however, again left asking the question, why the focus on Western science? Was there not some form of “science” in place before the West made it over to Asia? What was the relationship between Asian science and Asian religion? And, if an author is going to be discussing the relationship between only Western science and Asian religion, should this distinction not be made at some point during the discussion of methodology? Science can take many forms and, as we have discussed in class, can look very different depending on cultural and temporal context. The term should not imply Western.

The last reading for the week that I found particularly thought-provoking was Efron’s piece, “Science and Religions: what it means to take historical perspectives seriously.” In it, Efron confronts the complexity thesis and offers some interesting insight. While many historians have assumed that the complexity thesis implies what Efron terms “narrative complexity,” in which the relationship between science and religion has been historically complicated by the changing definitions of both terms in different contexts (temporal and cultural), he offers complexity of a different kind. “Moral complexity,” Efron argues, has more explanatory power. He states that, instead of looking at broad, historically contingent trends in the dynamics of science and religion, the historian should instead approach the issue from the perspective of individual actors and delve into how they, in their own understandings, hold the two sets of beliefs. I think that Stanley’s approach when he was trying to understand Huxley and Maxwell’s conceptions of scientific and religious beliefs is an example of such a method in action; Stanley reads their philosophies and teases out how each drew boundaries between the two ways of knowing, and particularly in Maxwell’s case, found them compatible.

I think that this would be a great way for historians of science and religion to move beyond the conflict thesis, and I would be very interested to read works that employ similar methods. The individual human mind, after all, is the fountainhead from which the understood relationship between these two entities flows.

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Science & Religion: Debunking the Conflict Thesis

In my junior year as an undergraduate, I took a collaborative class titled, “The Darwin Course.” It was put together and led by a science education professor, and we covered the science of evolutionary theory (via physics, anthropology, geology, and biology professors in two-week stints), Charles Darwin’s formation of it, its troublesome reception (although this discussion was largely confined to twentieth century America), and the philosophical and legal issues that surround it. By the end of the course, the lead professor had made his goals quite clear; we were all more than prepared, trained as soldiers to fight for the cause of secular scientific education, to argue against those — largely portrayed as religious zealots — who would be so dense and dogmatic as to stand in the way of the biological enlightenment of the adolescent masses.

The somewhat hyperbolic rendition of the class I have just presented is influenced by our discussion and readings this week. While I learned a good deal and would hardly take back my decision to enroll in the undergraduate course, the dichotomies and essentialist rhetoric employed by the authorities in the classroom embody the conflict thesis, an outdated and, as the readings suggest, inaccurate portrayal of how science and religion interact and intersect. I think that the professor’s position as a science educator played into his views of science and religion, and as the controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution in high schools shows few signs of being ultimately resolved, his position on the defensive is understandable. The consequences of coming out on the losing end of this conflict, in his eyes, are quite dire — an uninformed populace that defers important decisions to the authority of a book written thousands of years ago.

That is part of the reason why I find this perceived conflict so fascinating — it is incredibly intelligible, not only from the “science” side, but from the “religious” one. If someone understands a scientific theory as being ultimately incommensurable with their fundamentally-held, lived-by religious beliefs, they would naturally be upset that their children were being forced to learn it simply because someone somewhere has deemed it more intelligible. It would seem especially threatening if it was understood that these scientific beliefs undermined, and in some cases even directly contradicted, the very tenets on which religious belief was established.

It would appear from this perspective that the views of science and religion are completely incompatible. What these conflict narratives fail to address, however, and what the reading this week did, is that these essentialist distinctions between science and religion are historically contingent and socially constructed. One of the episodes highlighted in my undergraduate course was that of the Scopes Trial; it was presented as the ultimate showdown between scientific and religious understandings of the world, made more visible by differing opinions on what should be taught to impressionable youths. Shapiro’s piece confronts this interpretation, teasing out the complicated dynamics that, in the unique atmosphere of Dayton, Tennessee, led to the trial. The battle lines were largely drawn between urban and rural ideas about what high school curriculum should entail at a time when states were attempting to centralize their education systems, and textbook production and distribution played a major role in igniting the controversy when and where it occurred. The conflict was sensationalized and made into the universal example of science v. religion in the media firestorm that surrounded the trial, a narrative that continues to be told in undergraduate classrooms today.

Your introduction to “Science and Religion” discusses these issues further, elucidating how and why conflict narratives like the Scopes Trial are constructed and what pitfalls we can avoid falling into in order to avoid perpetuating them. Telling the story of the Scopes Trial in the format of a conflict narrative requires applying essentialist definitions of “science” and “religion” and juxtaposing them, when, as Shapiro has proven, neither one is simple or clear-cut, and they often are not even in direct conflict. Not all scientists hold the same set of beliefs, and similarly, not every religious person does either; this is compounded by the fact that these beliefs, different as they are from person to person, also change dramatically with time. Medieval Christianity is quite different from its modern equivalent, and scientific ideas that might have given one trouble might not seem problematic to the other. By applying definitions of science and religion that are over-simplistic and reductionist, historians and others engaged in the perpetuation of the conflict thesis impose terms that are usually anachronistic and presentist. This leads to an inaccurate portrait of the past relationship between science and religion and often results in pitting the two against one another in a way that those practicing either or both at the time would have found incomprehensible.

With his intellectual history of Maxwell and Huxley, Stanley provides a good point of departure for the last topic of discussion in this response. He presents a case study in which he looks at how naturalistic and religious scientific thinkers understood scientific endeavor, and he finds that they often had what he calls “valence values.” Both parties, committed as they were to their distinct worldviews, held similar ideas as to what constituted good science; the uniformity of natural laws, appropriate limits (set at what could be observed and tested), and intellectual freedom from dogma. Maxwell, a deeply religious individual, and Huxley, a self-proclaimed agnostic, participated in the same scientific community, which adhered to these rules. Both believed that the motivation behind a good scientist’s work was largely irrelevant to his practice as long as these rules were upheld. One chapter does highlight some clashing over science of the mind, but in most cases, religion and science for these nineteenth century men were not in conflict at all. This story stands in stark contrast to the one normally told about post-evolution nineteenth century scientists.

While my experience in the Darwin Course was instructive, I have come to the realization (which was already underway before class last Thursday, but has certainly accelerated by our discussion) that science and religion are not in a struggle for survival in the human quest for absolute truths; nor, as proponents of the conflict thesis would have you believe, are they monolithic, homogenous terms that can be applied unqualified to any set of beliefs or practices that might fall under their multi-faceted umbrellas. The relationship between science and religion is, like most things historians grapple with, more complex and dynamic than meets the eye.

“On the Frontier of the Empire of Chance”

Arwen Mohun, “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance: Statistics, Accidents, and Risk in Industrializing America.” Science in Context 3 (2005): 337-357.

In “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance,” author Arwen Mohun examines the rise in statistics and probabilistic thinking in the American vernacular context from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Through the lens of a cultural historian of technology, Mohun takes a closer look at how the industrial-era quantification of risk altered the way people understood it; she asks why and how this transformation took place, and then delves into how these understandings were shaped and used in order to mold individual behavior and enact widespread change. Mohun argues that the actors in her narrative existed on the periphery of the Empire of Chance. While experts, primarily located in European centers of statistical theorizing, formed the “epicenter” of the empire, those on the frontier employed statistics as a tool in social manipulation. Far from relegating popular audiences to a primarily observational, inert role, however, the author also acknowledges their agency in the story by explaining how their motivations affected their choices regarding risk and reward.

Obviously, Mohun’s work builds off of the book she references in her title — The Empire of Chance. Her piece is different from that of Gigerenzer et al., however, in that it addresses how the methodological and intellectual developments of professional statisticians found their way into popular understandings of variability and the risks associated with it. This is reminiscent of Dr. Pandora’s assigned reading for her two weeks of 5990 at the beginning of the semester — Spectacular Nature and The Whale and the Supercomputer. Like Mohun’s work, Susan G. Davis looks at how ideas from the “top,” the professional scientists, filter down into the vernacular through institutions like SeaWorld. Mohun also looks at how institutions influence the way that popular audiences understand scientific theories, their consequences, and their uses. In contrast, Charles Wohlforth focuses on how non-professional ways of knowing had a major impact on the way scientists looked at and understood climate change in the arctic. Mohun mimics this approach when she includes in her analysis how the importance of individual experience affects the way that the average American understood and behaved in regards to risk-taking. When the approach involves popular science, both perspectives — top-down and bottom-up — are important for a holistic understanding of how science and vernacular audiences interact and influence one another, and in this regard, Mohun as clearly covered all of her bases.

Something I found particularly interesting in this piece was the discussion of the “pragmatic approach” to science that Mohun discusses primarily on pages 339 and 340. She argues that it was especially characteristic of American statisticians in the time period she covers, and cites as evidence their absence from histories of statistics. American statisticians worried less about developing sound theories and methods and more about applying their knowledge (no matter how unsound or theoretically dubious) to real-world problems. This embodied what I have come to understand as being a very Industrial-American ideal; the self-made, self-trained practitioner unconcerned with the useless, bookish knowledge so characteristic of their less hard-working, impractical European counterparts. I wonder if the different approaches caused animosity between American and European statisticians; they were obviously sharing ideas. What did these conversations look like, and how did they take place? Was it common for Americans to train abroad, or were universities in America training these frontiersmen of the Empire of Chance?

The Empire of Chance

The Empire of Chance: How Probability Changed Science and Everyday Life, Gerd Gigerenzer, Zeno Swijtink, Theodore Porter, Lorrain Daston, John Beatty, and Lorenz Krüger

            In their collaborative work, authors Gerd Gigerenzer, Zeno Swijtink, Theodore Porter, Lorrain Daston, John Beatty, and Lorenz Krüger attempt a cohesive study of how the science of statistics “transformed our ideas of nature, mind, and society.” (xiv) The first three chapters present a timeline on which the intellectual development of the science of statistics — with some consideration of its particular applications — is situated, the middle three deal with statistics in particular fields, and the last two concern broader implications of statistical analyses, ideologies, and methodologies. A central theme of the book is the idea that the science of statistics was both shaped and shaped by the sciences that it aided and that helped to develop it for their own explanatory and predictive goals. Professing to be the first of its kind, the survey offers detailed technical descriptions and examples that flesh out the mathematics and theories with which its actors are working.

The passages dealing with mid-nineteenth century debates surrounding the viability of statistical methods for physicians reminded me of S. Lochlann Jain’s criticisms of the same methods in her work, Malignant. Jain and her unlikely intellectual compatriots cite similar issues with the “numerical method” in medicine; it denies the complexity and uniqueness of the individual patient, aiming “not to cure the disease, but to cure the most possible out of a certain number” (Risueño d’Amador, 1836, 46). This results in the emotions Jain so skillfully articulates in her first-hand account as a cancer patient. Reduced to numbers, cancer sufferers are identified by the statistical methods their doctors use to diagnose and treat them. Equally concerning is the reliance of pharmaceutical companies on results from statistical studies to produce drugs that will target cancer on a broader scale, to the detriment of patients who would have benefitted from more personalized treatments. Perhaps these nineteenth century critics were not off base in their hesitancy to adopt such a dehumanizing method of handling disease.

Another bit I found particularly interesting was section 3.5, “Hybridization: the Silent Solution.” Having taken statistics and seen it in what I am now realizing was a surprising amount of my undergraduate science classes, I was struck by the fact that the statistical methods we learn as absolute and established are in fact far from it. Integral tenets to the type of statistics I was taught are, in actuality, theoretically at odds with one another, and yet, as the authors contend, “Statistics is treated as abstract truth, a monolithic logic of inductive inference.” (107) Because statistical methods are so widespread, I find it both surprising and alarming that these obvious impediments to its image as a well-established and unproblematic method of analysis are kept more or less hidden. It lead me into thinking about how oftentimes, when scientific disciplines are “successfully” mathematized, we deem them somehow more intelligible; they become more solid, their results more trust-worthy. Is this a valid logical jump to make, especially if statistics, one of the mathematical sciences that is employed most often, rests on shaky ground?

Engineers of Happyland

Engineers of Happyland, Rudolf Mrázek

         Rudolf Mrázek’s work, clothed in the language of a history of technology, was in fact not a history of technology at all. Instead, Mrázek artfully uses technology to discuss his real interest — nationalism and modernity in the colonial setting. Through the lenses of the ways that people make and do things, and the engineers who help make those decisions, the author is able to capture conceptions and expositions of nationalism, both Dutch and Indonesian. Mrázek’s definition of “technology” is quite broad in this book, including not only the more obvious examples — trains, telephones, and radios — but also cultural technologies like clothing and language. This wide definition is more conducive to an intimate study of the rapidly changing of national identities the people of the Indies underwent in the tumultuous time period Engineers of Happylimaand covers.

This wider definition of technology lends itself to a similarly broad definition of “engineer.” Mrázek’s engineers are engineers in the sense that they are well versed in the technical, and they use this knowledge and the technologies it concerns to create new ways of making and doing. They are not designers of traditional technologies like televisions and computers, however, but focus their energies on engineering society and culture. They are cultural and political leaders, speaking to and promoting what they perceived would lead the Indies in the direction of their particular modern imaginary. Mrs. J. M. T. Catenius was one such engineer, as a writer of a manners and fashion guide; she gave advice on what was culturally and socially acceptable in clothing and manners, thus engineering an aspect of society. Mrázek’s other engineers included novelists, politicians, and other leaders whose ideas about progress and modernity were followed by constituents of the Indies. They often lead others with an eye to modernity, or what they conceived of as a better way to live; shedding light on what was dark, trading ambiguity for certainty and curves for straight lines, humans for machines. These people played important roles in determining how technologies would be used and what sorts of worlds they would create.

A theme of particular importance was that of space between the Dutch and the natives. Whatever technologies the Dutch introduced in an attempt to create a New Holland abroad, a glass house as Mrázek would say, the natives continued to incorporate their own visions of modernity into them, distorting and closing the space between Dutch and native modernity. This harks back to last week and Barak’s work, which also dealt with how colonized populations used the very technology deployed to control or alter them to instead birth a new vision for themselves. Regardless of how the colonizers would have it, the Indies was not the Netherlands, and the natives were not Dutch. What to do with the space in between?

Social and cultural technologies, because they often by definition reside in the communal, proved particular points of contention for the colonizer and the colonized, and thus the space in between them. Roads and railways both required native and colonial bodies to share the same physical space, and both parties brought with them into that space the cultural practices and experiences that defined their origins. Dutch citizens would complain when native grobak carts slowed their progress on the roads; “if you can only teach him… to decently keep to the left side of the road as I am passing by on my motorcycle,” one wrote. (23) The carts’ wheels were bad for the roads, others pointed out.

Equally important in this space, and of particular interest to me, was the perceived space between the bodies of the natives and the Dutch. The native body was viewed as more tolerant of heat in the discussion of air conditioning, and on more than one occasion, was associated with dirt, disease, and feces. An object of much concern with Dutch social engineers was that of the dirtying of the roads by native bodies; their feet brought dirt, and they were prone to defecating in the road. Their ill constructed carts, situated on off-centered axles, “rode over ‘the feces of men, horses, and buffaloes, and made them into dust,’” which was then blown into the homes and businesses that lined the road. The roads, like modern man, needed to be “healed,” H. F. Tillema, a pharmacist and social commentator wrote. In a later work published by the same man, images of natives using their dirty latrines were juxtaposed with images of the clean, Dutch alternative. Natives were dirty and the Dutch were clean.

The native body, and the perceived unregulated Indies more generally, were also heavily associated with disease and contrasted with the “hygienic” practices of the Dutch. The dusty roads mentioned above were blamed for the high infant mortality of the Indies, along with “throat, nose, and lung disorders,” “Typhus,” “Pneumonia,” and other “pathogenic organisms.” The ideal modern road, by contrast, was to be “hard and antiseptic.” (25) Kampongs, low-class native living quarters, were often targeted as the source of epidemics and were contrasted with Dutch bungalows, situated above the city in healthful altitude, termed both “clean and healthy.” (69) The healthfulness of technologies for the European body were also a major selling point in debates about whether they should be implemented; in discussing the importance of air conditioning, the effect of heat on the “mental stamina” of white colonists was considered, and the exclusion of natives in the discussion implied that their bodies were fundamentally different than their native contemporaries’. In creating space between the Dutch and the natives, these commentators stressed the physiological, bodily differences inherent in the two populations. A harder, more concrete distinction can hardly be imagined.

This biological space was supplemented by other distance-inducing recommendations deployed by commentators. One such example is that found in the architecture of the period. In an attempt to maintain their glass houses in the Indies, the Dutch constructed houses higher and higher off of the ground. Even though these structures were ill-suited for the climate — heat rises — they helped to further delineate the Dutch from the native population. These attempts at creating space between colonizer and colonized gave the Dutch and their technologies a sense of “floating,” something that would increasingly contribute to growing dissonance in the eyes of the colonized, who did not use technologies to separate themselves from their colonizers. Instead, “they did not seem intent to build or dismantle any bridges, as they did not seem to be disturbed by any space in between.” (130) Their sense of modernity was not “dirtied” by Dutch interference.

The final three chapters focus on the way that the rising Indonesian nationalist movement deployed these same technologies — social, cultural, and technical — to create their own brand of modernity. Donning European-style clothes, Indonesian dandies encroached on Dutch space by adopting the regalia appropriate to their social standing, which was increasingly closer to that of the colonizer, as a new “substrata” of natives attained college degrees and were employed in office, telegraph, and railway station settings. Mrázek presents the question that most of the Dutch at the time were probably asking; “If a native became clothed as he or she wanted to, would he or she no longer be a native? Wherein, then, would the native belong?” As the colony became more fluid, less easy to categorize and define, these questions became more pressing.

My complaints about Engineers of Happyland are quite similar to the ones I voiced concerning On Barak’s On Time. The timeline is obscured, making some of Mrázek’s arguments harder to follow. His metaphorical language sometimes relied on an understanding of the timeline of Indonesian colonization and independence that I do not have. That being said, it is a fact that, along the lines of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, his strategy for understanding the complexity of the time period he covers is to “loosen time.”

He is also discussing a time of changing political boundaries, and he does very little in the vein of explaining what he means by “the Indies” and “Indonesia.” I realize, however, that the book’s intended audience is probably comprised of scholars already versed in this time period. That being said, if academics focusing on terrain normally excluded from scholarly narratives want their work to hold more importance in the discipline, would it not be advantageous to make such works more accessible to those unfamiliar with the territory?

 

“(Auto)mobility, Accidents, and Danger”

 

“(Auto)mobility, Accidents, and Danger,” Technology and Culture

            The format of this issue is different in that it starts out with the presentation of a simplistic framework proposed by Peter Norton, and the articles that follow employ that framework and the questions it urges, showing how it does and does not fit into much more nuanced and localized studies of traffic safety. The intellectual outlook is different than what we havefo looked at so far because it analyzes the culture and infrastructure a technology requires; cars would be far less useful and abundant if roads were not built for automotive traffic and laws were not created to regulate its uses and abuses. For the car to be fully accepted into a society, that society must make manifest their approval of it by constructing more than just a culture to surround it — rules, regulations, and infrastructure are all required. By delving into this complicated process, the contributors to this issue have tried to tease apart how and why these cultural and infrastructural pillars were built, and how popular and institutional understandings of the safety or danger of the technology in question have factored into these decisions.

One of the most interesting aspects I found highlighted in a few of the articles was the role that class played in the regulation of roads, cars, and drivers, and thus the socio-cultural acceptance of a technology. Particularly at the beginning of the automobile’s career (Norton’s phase 1 and 2), it was very much a part of male, elite culture — a culture that had and used institutional privilege to hasten the car’s takeover of roads, a public space. While the automobile’s reputation as an inherently dangerous machine prompted hesitancy early on (in the form of lower speed limits and licensure), as Donald Weber’s case in Belgium shows, powerful members of automobile clubs were able to paint a new image of the danger of cars by framing statistical analyses of the issue in a way that would, “shift attention away from motorized traffic and have other means of transportation share the blame.” (402) Lobbyists also used their political clout to push forward punitive safety regulations at the expense of preventative ones. By delegating blame to the driver or the pedestrian — and not the car itself — these men secured its dominion over public roads, even though only 2.5% of Belgians owned a car by 1930. Obviously, the acceptance of the car was not as simple as it being viewed a utilitarian machine capable of improving everyone’s lives. The decisions regarding its cultural and infrastructural inroads into societies, if the case of Belgium is an indicator of more ubiquitous trends, was largely in the hands of the wealthy and powerful. I don’t want to get political here, but arguments against gun control in modern-day America contain eerily similar rhetoric and logical fallacy.

The latter half of the issue is largely concerned with how traffic safety policy changed after auto supremacy had been established. Through the framework of Norton’s paradigms, Stève Bernardin and Jameson Wetmore explore the United States’s second and third phases; the second was largely backed by “grassroots” movements instigated and maintained by “motordom” members and safety experts, while the third was a product of government intervention. I was particularly interested in XXX’s piece on automobility in Africa; its discussion of what the Peugeot 404 meant to Africans reminded me of Rieger’s arguments in The People’s Car. Just as Germans had seen an industrial, successful Germany in the Volkswagon Beetle, so Africans saw in the 404 “the speed of Africanization that could remake the colonized subject in the new imaginary of the sovereign African state.” (471) Fancy new (to the user, anyway) artifacts, it seems, often take on whatever “modernity” means to their users. I wonder what the almost ubiquitous link between technology and modernity says about people, and what instances in which this isn’t the case (like the movie Ex Machina, where a rogue technology ends up being a serious problem) say as well.

The primary question I think this issue gets at is: how do we deal with the adverse effects of a pervasive technology? And, more specifically, how can we answer that question when humans have to be factored in as the operators of that technology? In the case of traffic safety, that question has been answered by playing what Claes Tingvall termed the “blame game” in his contribution. When an accident occurs, who is at fault? The machine, the operator, the victim, or the infrastructure? Depending on to whom, where, and when this question was asked, different answers were proposed. How these answers were constructed, argued, and made into concrete changes (be they technical, cultural, or infrastructural) can tell us a lot about latent divisions in a society and about their beliefs about technology, its risks, and its role in their world. I think technologies with infrastructural dimensions like the car give historians a unique opportunity to look at something that has its tendrils in many different areas of life, belief, and culture; this issue proved that through the varied conclusions its contributors were able to draw by employing Norton’s framework and answering the questions he posed.

 

“Shifting Gears”

 

“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.