“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?

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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.

 

The People’s Car

The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle, Bernhard Rieger

         As someone quite illiterate insofar as the history of technology is concerned, I thought this book did an excellent job of elucidating through example just how ingrained in a society’s beliefs, prejudices, and self-perceptions technologies are, and equally important, how easily the same technologies can adapt to new socio-cultural environments. Technologies can be overtly used — like the VW Beetle was by the Nazi regime — to further political, social, or economic goals or ideologies, but the purposeful instillation of technological ethos is not the only way that a technology can acquire social meaning. The beetle’s adaptation to cultural environments outside of Germany (and even inside of West Germany, a quite different landscape from the one of its conception) proves that technologies can acquire meanings far beyond those instilled in them by their developers. Author Bernhard Rieger cleverly displays the nuances and complicated patterns of societies’ relationships with technologies, demonstrating that neither technological determinism nor the social construction of technology paint a full picture of the way that a technology interacts with a population. Instead, as evidenced by the effects the bug had on society and the way that society in turn shaped the bug, a reciprocal relationship emerges in which society and technology converse and enact changes in one another.

The book showed how technologies can be an avenue through which political entities proliferate (radio) and reinforce their ideologies; the VW Beetle in its promotion by the Nazi party was meant to “demonstrate how the emerging ‘people’s community’ would raise the average German’s living standard.” (58-59) Things can be said, ideas made manifest, through the use of commodities. In Rieger’s words; “Material objects often acquire profound personal and collective significance because they make the ‘abstract… concrete, closer to lived experience.'” (6) Hitler was able to make his ideologies concrete by enacting technological policies that put his beliefs about the ideal society into action. In a way, the technologies spoke back — and said something about the realities of human nature — when his laissez-faire Highway Code backfired. Perhaps, if he had listened when the human-technology conglomerate (men driving cars) spoke, he would have found that is worldview (and what he wanted for Germany) was untenable.

After WWII, the bug was in a precarious situation in occupied West Germany. Rieger’s account of how it bounced back, in no small part due to its revamped and heavily revised cultural aura, offers the first example of how a technology can adapt to different socio-cultural environments. In order to remain culturally attractive, the bug had to shed its Nazi origin story; like the society that surrounded it, it was viewed as a victim of the Third Reich. Its paramount success in the otherwise dire post-war economy served as a beacon of hope for Germans. Where the Nazis had failed, the Federal Republic had finally provided a long forgotten promise of providing the average German a vehicle. This drastic reworking of VW’s actual history goes to show that technologies evolve and adapt with the populations they were created to serve and are not static historical factors. They can also play a role, as they had in the 1930s and 1940s, in establishing and reinforcing cultural identities. Battered Germans looked at the success of the beetle and saw an economically viable, competitive Germany in their future, if they would only work hard like those in Wolfsburg had.

The latter half of the book is what makes Rieger’s history “global”; in it, he outlines the bugs’ donning of a few other cultural robes. The Nazi origins of the car tended to be too much of an obstacle to the British constituency, displaying limits to the beetle’s techno-cultural adaptability. In America, by contrast, after initial hurdles the Volkswagen became very popular. As part of a new society, however, it took on a very different identity. Instead of the hearty “people’s car,” the standard-setter it had been in Germany, the bug adopted a distinctly unorthodox and counter-culture ethos in the American market, which was dominated by much larger, domineering vehicles. In Mexico, the beetle — or vochito — adopted yet another cultural ethos. Again, its simple yet reliable engineering proved advantageous; Mexicans identified the car as “tough” and “thick-skinned,” “capable of handing both actual and metaphorical bumps in the road,” like its hardy clientele. (283)

Rieger employs a somewhat elementary version of gender analysis, commenting occasionally on how the culture surrounding the car differed for men and women. A lot more could have been done here, but at 335 pages, the book was already quite hefty. Another mild complaint I had was that it seems a bit much to call a book that covers Germany, the United Kingdom, America, and Mexico, “global,” but again, including more would have made Rieger’s book a monolithic project and read. This begs the question, however, of what exactly “global” means to historians — because if it means only four countries, three of which are western European, that seems problematic.

I came away from the book with a far deeper understanding of the way that, to borrow from Dr. Heyck, technology and society reinvent one another over and over again. While the appearance of the bug — because it was such a large part of its draw — remained more or less the same, its cultural meaning was constantly being reworked, just as the societies in which it found itself developed unique and varied ideas of what it meant to them. The car’s reentrance into the automobile market in the 1990s speaks to how powerful and long lasting these associations can be. Additionally, Rieger’s explanations of why the VW caught on (or didn’t) displayed just how important international politics and economics are to technological adoption and adaptation. Far from being static entities only reflective of their designers’ technological goals, technologies can tell historians a lot about the worlds they were produced from and used within.

Technology and Gender

Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China, Francesca Bray

            Making use of a broad definition of technology — “an action performed on some form of inanimate or animate matter, designed to produce an object with human meaning … [as] exercised in its social context”[1] — author Francesca Bay analyzes the ways in which Chinese “gynotechnics” created the world in which women lived and also influenced the way they interacted with and within it in late Imperial China. Bray does this in three domains: in the creation of hierarchical, gendered, and ritualistic spaces within the practices of homebuilding, in the transition in textile, particularly silk, production from the female to the male sphere and its affect on gender roles, and in the technologies of women’s health and their part in creating and reinforcing class and gender distinctions. With the intention of conducting an investigation into technology’s role in social reproduction, the author outlines how these three “technologies” created and perpetuated the social and cultural frameworks in which Chinese women operated.

Bray’s approach to talking about spaces — the way that they were built for certain purposes, and what those purposes can tell us about the society that found them important — is reminiscent of other constructivist approaches to historical spaces. The quarters in which the Royal Society worked and socialized in, as described by Schaefer and Shapin, served to promote an orderliness based off of gentlemanly etiquette; the homes constructed in Imperial China similarly functioned as a way to promote social order in the form of strict hierarchies founded on ancestral respect and the home as a governmental microcosm. The rooms of the Royal Society were often seated with very little attention paid to rank — everyone was encouraged, even required, to participate in the scientific discussion. Homes in China were centered around their ancestors’ shrine, the way that Chinese lives were meant to revolve around the expectations their ancestors, and through extension society as a whole, expected. Heights of roofs were dictated by social rank. The Royal Society’s strategy of spatial arrangement exemplified their attempt (within the strict boundaries of class) to promote observed, and therefore legitimate, scientific knowledge. The structure of the Chinese home promoted the generation of a different kind of product — one highly gendered, hierarchical, and controlled.

 

“Categories of Difference, Categories of Power: Bringing Gender and Race to the History of Technology,” Nina E. Lerman

            Nina Lerman questions the prevailing definition of a “technology” in SHOT literature, arguing that it is exclusive and teleological. She highlights the scholarly focus on technologies as “markers of progress,”[2] judged in their relation to modern science, instead of the broader definition of a technology as “ways of making and doing things.”[3] By focusing on technologies that historians have viewed as particularly productive or progressive in light of modern science, the SHOT industry has sidelined many important technological developments and missed many contemporary cultural emphases on certain kinds technologies — and what these emphases say about gender and racial relations. Lerman presents an example in analyzing the records of an organization in Philadelphia devoted to providing technical training to problematic youths. White males were given tasks more in line with valuable technical knowledge (notably different from what a modern organization of the same kind would find most appropriate), while young women and people of color were trained in less valuable and sometimes less technical subjects. By adopting an approach where the modern “keyword” of technology is stripped of its modern exclusivity, Lerman is able to comment on gender and race relations through the unique lens of non-exclusive technology.

I read Technology and Gender before Lerman’s article (primarily) concerning an expanded definition of technology, and that was probably a mistake. I spent a lot of energy trying to wrap my mind around the idea of technology as a social construction and as a means of social reproduction. Lerman enlightened me, describing the way that modern historians have restricted the definition of technology to things that we, in our current time, view as progressive: telescopes and microscopes, computers and phones, etc. Grappling with the broader definition after having read both works, however, still left me slightly dissatisfied; if technology is constructed in contemporary contexts, and it also reinforces and perpetuates the ideas, traditions, or theories that created it, what makes it so important? It comes from a culture and produces things within the frameworks of that culture. What does technology do in the grand scheme of things? It certainly, by the definition Bray offers, cannot contribute to change; does this definition of technology, then, have a place in any study not focused on stability (like Technology and Gender)? I think not.

[1] Francesca Bray, Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China, 15-16.

[2] Nina E. Lerman, “Categories of Difference, Categories of Power: Bringing Gender and Race to the History of Technology,” 895.

[3] Ibid.