142: Marcus & Segal’s Technology in America

Alan Marcus and Howard Segal’s Technology in America: A Brief History is a clear, readable, social constructivist history of technological development in the United States from the early 17th century to the late 20th.  While its scope keeps the history of any particular technological development to the length of an encyclopedia article, its investment in social construction means that technologies are contextualized within social, economic, cultural, and historical developments.  The result is a history of America told through the history of technology, with an emphasis on the ways in which American culture determines technological development.

Throughout, Marcus and Segal focus not on why things didn’t happen, but on how things did happen.  What made a technology acceptable and therefore applicable was a) how it was conceptualized and b) how it was explained to and understood by the people who would use it.  Both technologies & their implementation are the products of what their inventors, investors, and potential users understand of their situation and whether they think a particular


technology is a likely solution.  Therefore, in the early 1800s, the government sponsored roads, turnpikes, canals, and bridges to facilitate the pursuit of individual opportunity in commerce, while entrepreneurs imported skilled mechanics and machines from Europe because America lacked both skill and cheap labor for production.  Before the steamboat, America imported most technologies, from mills to railroads to guns, from Europe, sometimes resorting to corporate espionage, and made only minor adaptations to these technologies once they brought them to America, often under federal sponsorship and always under the guise of promoting individualism and entrepreneurship.  Technological development in the mid-19th century followed systems thinking, which was mirrored in the social systems envisioned by late 19th century reformers.  After the 1950s, technology developed not in relation to massive industrial systems but relative to the human body.  With each period, Marcus and Segal provide short summaries of major economic, social, and cultural developments, which provide points of departure for discussions about sociohistorical context.

I appreciate their clear periodization and their emphasis on contextualization, and I think their argument for the uniqueness of American technological development is actually somewhat valid (they argue that all cultures are different, and technology develops within culture, so American technology is unique – but not better).  However, I’m concerned that their emphasis on social construction doesn’t leave any room for internal technological development, which means that it proceeds as though technologies don’t have a history apart from culture.  Technologies may only “work” if they are accepted by culture, but they still have to function, at least somewhat, for culture to consider them in the first place.

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