History 398 - Spring 2002

Technologies and Their Societies: Historical Perspectives

Third Essay - Final Exercise

Write an essay of about 2000 words on ONE of the following questions. Your answer should reflect your knowledge of the readings and lectures through the choice of appropriate examples to document and illustrate your argument. The essay is due by 3:00 PM, 20 May, in your preceptor's box in the History Office, 129 Dickinson Hall. Extensions may be granted only by an appropriate Dean or Director of Studies.


In "Do Artifacts Have Politics?", Langdon Winner proposes several models of the ways in which technologies shape or reflect the politics of their societies.  How do those models help to analyze the politics of the automobile in Helen and Robert Lynds's Middletown and the politics of the computer in Brown and Duguid's The Social Life of Information?  Be sure to use specific examples taken from both books.


Although gender has not been an explicit theme of the course, the lectures, readings, and precept discussions have repeatedly touched on the quite different ways in which men and women experience technology and technological change.  To the extent that technological systems embody political arrangements, they cannot help but reflect or even shape relations of gender in society.  Using specific examples taken from different portions of the course, discuss this proposition critically.   How do Brown and Duguid contribute to our understanding of the issue in The Social Life of Information?


During the period covered by the first half of this course, "information" played little if any role in either the primary or the secondary sources. By the end of the course, "information" had become a concept, a technology, indeed a commodity of modern consumer society. Using specific examples from lectures, readings, and precept discussions, discuss how that happened.  What light do Brown and Duguid shed on the question in The Social Life of Information?


"The unifying characteristic of the factories of the American system was the pervasiveness of technologically defined social relations.  Specialized machinery and sophisticated machine processes were the basis of the American system; they were likewise the basis of the social system that developed within such plants.  They decisively affected the character of the work and, less often, the physical setting in which the work was undertaken." (Daniel Nelson, "The American System and the American Worker")
Discuss Nelson's proposition with respect to the 19th-century textile mill, Ford's Highland Park Plant, and Data General's Westborough facility.  Looking beyond the production of computers themselves to their use as means both of production and of recreation,  what light does Nelson shed on some of the issues raised by Brown and Duguid in The Social Life of Information, and conversely?


The introduction of new technologies does not always serve to satisfy the preexisting needs of societies.  Few people felt they "needed" the automobile that Henry Ford designed for them.  Ford himself pointed out that the need must often be manufactured as well.  Drawing upon several specific examples of from the readings and the lectures, discuss the ways in which newly introduced technologies have moved from novelties to necessities.  Your answer should include the perspectives offered on this question by Brown and Duguid in The Social Life of Information.


"This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations."