“The Frailties and Beauties of Technological Creativity”
Do hidden moral choices affect the technologies we invent and choose to live with? John M. Staudenmaier has spent a career asking such questions.
Historians of technology have come to their calling by diverse paths, many from general history, some from journalism, some from engineering, and more and more from academic programs focused on technology and society. Few have had as unusual a pilgrimage as John Michael Staudenmaier, the author of Technology’s Storytellers , a prizewinning analysis of the emergence of the history of technology as a coherent intellectual discipline. Since 1981 Staudenmaier has taught at the University of Detroit, with several terms as a visiting professor at MIT and other teaching stints in California and Italy. Before that he studied with Thomas P. Hughes at the University of Pennsylvania, and before that he took degrees in philosophy at St. Louis University. Although Staudenmaier has been a member of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) since 1974, he has been a member of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit order, for nearly twice that long. A few years before he entered graduate school at Penn, he was ordained in the Roman Catholic priesthood.
John M. Staudenmaier, S.J., is now fifty-three. For more than half his life, he has spent periods working with the Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where he was first sent as part of his Jesuit regimen. He has taught and counseled Indian students, directed recreational programs, and been adopted by a Sioux family, the Weasel Bears. He still does pastoral work on Pine Ridge each summer, and he feels that he owes much of his understanding of cross-cultural tensions to his many years of close contact with the Lakotas.
Not merely the chronicler of technology’s storytellers, Staudenmaier has been something of the field’s conscience as well. He has kept watch on trends in the literature: the shifting emphasis from “internalism,” or strictly technical history, to “contextualism,” the broader cultural story; the hardiness of what he regards as shopworn themes; and the persistent neglect of certain themes close to his own heart, such as the effects of Western ideologies of technological progress on non-Western peoples. Currently he is interested in technology as cultural symbol. “Every technology that becomes dominant within a host society,” he argues, “does so in part because it has achieved, either by explicit strategy or by less conscious cultural processes, compelling symbolic status within the culture’s affective and cognitive frames of reference.”
This perception underlies the book Staudenmaier is now writing, Henry Ford: Symbol and Symbol Maker , and articles he has been writing both for historical journals and for religious periodicals such as The Way and America . He remarks: “I write for Catholic-oriented publications as a sort of family responsibility. I feel that the Catholic community benefits from hearing about the questions that we in SHOT have been addressing. There is a lot of payoff.” In this interview, conducted in Dearborn, Michigan, Staudenmaier expresses his hopes, concerns, convictions, and deep-seated faith in the importance of technological history.
John, tell me about how you first went to the Pine Ridge Reservation.
When I went out there, I was following a pretty standard Jesuit regimen. While you do your undergraduate work, and then a master’s, you study a lot of philosophy. The next thing on the program, before you study theology and get ordained, is a sort of reality therapy, usually for three years. Typically you teach in a high school in a big city, but it happened that I was sent out to Pine Ridge. I have no idea how the people who decided things made such decisions. In those days you just went to the bulletin board and found out where you were going.
Pine Ridge wasn’t so far from where you grew up, though.
It wasn’t nearby. I grew up in a small town in northern Wisconsin, Marinette. My dad was a lawyer who became president of a little bank. My grandparents ran a dairy farm. I went out to their farm almost every weekend and hung around with my uncle Bob, milking cows.
Were there Native Americans in those parts?
Sure, but I knew nothing about Indians until I hit the reservation in 1964. I was scared to death. I had just finished writing a master’s thesis on Bergson’s Latin thesis, which is about Aristotle’s theory of natural place. So I went from the European arcane out to Pine Ridge. It was dirt poor; Shannon County, the heart of Pine Ridge, was the poorest county in the United States. Unemployment sometimes runs 85 percent there. I had never taught. I can still remember my first class, sophomore English. I said, “Well, for tomorrow, I want you to have read this short story, and there are some questions at the end of the story. I want you to do questions one, three, six, seven, nine, ten, eleven, thirteen, fifteen, and seventeen.” And the entire room, as if there were an orchestra conductor behind my back bringing them all in on perfect time, looked at me and went “Jeeez-ah!” That was an expression I had never heard. I heard it many times afterward.
So the culture shock was mutual.
They didn’t know what to make of me; I didn’t know what to make of them. It was extraordinarily difficult for me in the beginning. In the first year I was there, one-third of the kids dropped out. During the second semester there was only one hour between six-thirty in the morning and ten at night when I was not actively on duty somewhere—one hour for showering, eating, correcting papers, preparing for class.
It got a little bit better. Hindsight shows that our program was on the rebound economically. We were just beginning to raise some serious money so we could repair stuff that was falling apart. But those years took a pretty protected young man and put him in this place where something like 80 percent of the high school boys had been in jail at least once, for drunk and disorderly conduct, occasionally vagrancy, sometimes worse. I’d never heard of anything like that.
Did the kids often leave the area?
Oh, yes, there was a lot of coming and going—Rapid City, Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis. But mostly they hated those places. Most of the young people didn’t like living with whites.
What about white men’s gadgets—portable radios, automobiles?
Well, on Pine Ridge people love to work on cars. Some families have dozens of partly disassembled automobiles out in front of their houses. These are their parts departments. In 1968, the first summer I lived with the Weasel Bear family, we needed a radiator for our 1955 Ford. So we asked around. Does anybody know who has any ’55 Fords? We found two families that did. We drove out to one place, and they said we could wander around and take a look at the radiators, and sure enough, one of them looked O.K. So we paid five bucks, pulled the radiator out, drove home with it, and installed it in our car.
If you were to go out to the reservation and look around, you would think the high school kids are pretty Westernized—cars, radios, country-and-western or pop music. You have to be there awhile before you become aware of the things that are going on. At least that was my experience. The differences are profound. The Lakota people are contemplative; their experience of time is centered on events, not on the clock; they see themselves as kin to and not conquerors of the rest of natural reality; they honor communal sharing more than individual initiative and personal success.
After a while I began to realize, “I am living in another culture.” But it was fragmented because there are all kinds of intrusions of Western culture. It’s a very explosive combination. And it’s such a rough life—the suffering, the drinking, the shocking incidence of suicide and sudden death, the despair. The despair just knocked me over.
What was at the root of this despair?
That was the question that began to eat at me. I began to think that the answers lay in violent contradictions between traditional Lakota values and the values embedded in the Western technologies that had become a part of life on Pine Ridge.
That’s why you decided to pursue doctoral studies in the history of technology?
I had never heard of the history of technology, didn’t know it existed. I applied to graduate programs in American Civilization, because I figured they were flexible and they would let me do what I wanted.
How did you find out that the history of technology existed?
When I was arranging my schedule for the first semester at Penn, I signed up for a course with Anthony F. C. Wallace, the anthropologist. But when I got there to register, it was full. I went to see one of the faculty in the American Civ program, Tony Garvan. He pulled out my file and read the essay I’d written to get into grad school, about the conflict between Western technological values and the values of cultures that are essentially contemplative. And he said, “Well, I don’t know anything about him, but we just got a guy from Southern Methodist. Tom Hughes. He teaches history of technology—whatever that is—and maybe you would be interested in his courses.”
So you went to a class Hughes was teaching.
I remember sitting down in the back. Hughes was already lecturing, and he had a diagram of a Welsh coal mine on the board. And within about twenty minutes I was thinking, “I don’t know who he is, I don’t know what this is, but this is what I’ve been looking for, this kind of thinking.” That’s how I found out about the history of technology.
Don’t Jesuits study a lot of history?
Latin and Greek. European history. Not much American. But among the Jesuits being a scholar is a legitimate occupation. About 10 or 20 percent of us really do scholarship, and another 20 percent have Ph.D.s and teach in colleges. All of us tend to believe that you ought to write a book about whatever you’re doing, because it’s worth thinking about. That is a very Jesuit attitude. A guy working in the streets of New York for twenty-five years is probably going to write a book about it. We are given to articulation, there is no question about that.
But were you interested in a life of academic work?
Not really. I went into doctoral studies because I wanted to think through this problem—the disruptive effects of Western ideologies of technological progress. I wanted to think it through, and I wanted to go back to the reservation and get at solutions somehow or another. But little by little I began to think about an academic career in the history of technology. I enjoyed technological history, from that first sketch of a Welsh coal mine on the blackboard.
How did you decide that you were going to analyze the field itself, as you eventually did in your dissertation?
One of my first ideas was for a thesis about the way historians of technology understand invention, or innovation—how they understand technological creativity. Then I started trying to figure out who the devil “historians of technology” were . I asked a few people, and I found that nobody seemed to know. Oh, they could name names. They said, “Well, now, Lynn White, there’s a historian of technology. And Louis Hunter, that book of Hunter’s on steamboats, that’s the stuff.”
But that didn’t answer your question.
Nope. I remember thinking, “Well, there is this scholarly journal, Technology and Culture . Maybe I should spend a week or so just poking around there to get some leads.” A week or so turned into four and a half years. One day Tom Hughes said, “You know, there’s that article by Reinhard Rürup.” Rürup taught at the Free University of Berlin, and he had had an article about the field in T&C in 1974. I did know it, because it was about the best thing in print. Rürup not only described the main trends in the history of technology but made sense of them in terms of key underlying questions. Does technology determine the direction of societal change? That sort of thing. It was such a learned, broad-reaching piece of work. Tom said, “I wonder if you could write a thesis that did what Rürup was doing but did it more thoroughly?” That was the beginning of it. I had already found that I loved to read what people write and then ask, “In what frame of reference are they living when they write this way? What is the universe of discourse?”
So here is T&C , and what’s appearing there seems to suggest that there are historians who have hit on new ways of looking at technology. But the question was whether they would create a new universe of discourse.
At first I just went along week by week, trying to sort out the hundreds of articles that had been published in T&C over two decades. But eventually I had to look for a means of making sense of it. I was starting to wonder what these authors were doing that provides a common perspective on the use of waterwheels in Peru and the use of tear gas by policemen in the United States. Clearly it is not just a concern with hardware, because there are so many hardwares and they are addressed so randomly.
Little by little I began to realize there were several ways to try to make sense out of it all. You couldn’t pick up the journal without being hit over the head with internalism, the approach focused directly on technological design. That was ancient; it has a long tradition—fascination with hardware and the design of technological things. But there were also historians who were interested in how technology and culture intersect. They wanted to situate technology in its historical context. I used the word ambience because it’s suitably amorphous for describing the relationship of technological design to a big tangled mass of politics and everything else. And there were people who were not writing about technological design or about the intersection of design and ambience either, but who could still be considered historians of technology. The history of the Patent Office, for example, influenced inventors and influenced investors and so on.
That’s what you call “external” history. But say more about what you meant by the term ambience .
I remember talking to a friend of mine who was a composer and saying, “You know, you take a thing that works, and in and of itself it presents questions: How does it work, what does it need to make it work, how is it designed? But then there is its relationship with everything else —what an interesting question that is! If you just look at the thing itself, you have a rational universe, a universe that is bounded, that makes sense, that is satisfying. It works or it doesn’t work. And yet, when you look outside the boundary, at the ambience, it’s wild! And it’s fun!”
For example, why did the highway engineers who designed the U.S. interstate system in the fifties and sixties sometimes run the system through major cities instead of only up to their outer circumferences? Who decided that those freeways were more important, as civic assets, than the neighborhoods they sliced through? The design embodies a political, even a philosophical, and certainly an aesthetic stance about cities, about travel, about individualism (cars vs. trains)—in short, about a whole world view. And you can begin to read that stance if you look at the resulting design and ask, “Why did they think this was a good idea?” and “Who got to decide that this was going to be the design?” And I remember my composer friend responding, “What a great idea.”
Eventually the distinction between design and ambience became the dominant theme of your dissertation.
Yes, but at some point I started becoming aware of something else. Internalist historians were usually caught in a web of assumptions about technology as progress, but to a significant degree, so were contextualists. Their writings often depicted technology as a mythic force that swept through history on its own, overtaking those who did not keep up and sweeping them aside.
But you didn’t understand that they were making this error until later?
It was only after I began college teaching and got some criticism from various people, including some very challenging grad students at MIT in 1983. They said, “What you write is totally descriptive. You don’t stand for anything.” Well, they were right. Contextualists, historians who wanted to integrate design and ambience, were creating a new language, yes, and it was badly needed. But a lot of these same people had also swallowed the old ideology of autonomous progress. When I began pointing this out, I rattled some cages.
Are we becoming any warier of this myth? In the museum world we think we are, yet as you have said, the aesthetic power of the artifacts still tends to overwhelm whatever caveats curators write on the walls.
I don’t mind the beautiful machines as much as the absence of equally visceral symbols of discord and conflict. On the symbolic level it’s all beautiful machines. That’s what I’ve said in my critiques of the Smithsonian’s “Engines of Change” show and the Henry Ford Museum’s automobile exhibit.
Yet your criticism of those exhibits is mild compared with what you have said about Disney’s EPCOT Center. In his new book on Disney World, Vinyl Leaves, Stephen Fjellman writes that “Disney’s shows about science, technology, and the future are primarily corporate ideology.” Does that pretty well sum up your view?
In the best technological museums you have a group of increasingly sophisticated scholars, curators, and consultants who are truly committed to wrestling with the demands of a mature contextualism and with the realization that along with its benefits, technology exacts human costs. EPCOT openly promotes the ideology of simple technological progressivism. It gives no hint that the design of artifacts entails contests over political power. Technology may be slightly problematic, but technological problems can always be fixed by more technology. Visitors to EPCOT believe they are getting history lessons, but they’re not.
For instance, EPCOT’s “World of Motion” exhibit teaches the history of transportation technologies. But it treats earlier technologies and earlier human beings as inept. You’re invited to laugh at the past. Then, somewhere around 1920, you begin to hear serious background music with a serious voice telling of the engineering experts who gradually solved the problems of transportation through automotive technologies. Finally, as your moving chair rounds the bend from the present to tomorrow, you enter a world of high gloss and pinpoint lighting. The implicit message? The past, humans and their technologies alike, is pathetic, the present is serious, and the future holds near-perfect promise for us all.
How about the state of academic scholarship? I know you feel that historians are still rehashing sterile debates about the relationship between science and technology and that T&C is devoting too little attention to non-Western technologies.
In the last few years I have been feeling much more confident about the state of the field in terms of the old imbalances—my set of “questions too often ignored”—and that’s primarily because of what I’ve heard at annual meetings of SHOT. We have a lot of young people who have been deeply influenced by what I consider to be really large questions, questions about labor-management conflict, about gender, about ideology, about the symbolic construction of technologies. I’m pleased with the attention to those kinds of questions. But you know, we’ve also got to keep paying attention to how stuff works. That’s important too.
What distinguishes people who call themselves historians of technology? As Leo Marx of MIT recently asked, “If we grant the claims of the contextualists, how can we justify segregating the history of technology … from the history of the societies and cultures that shape it?”
The thing that distinguishes people who call themselves historians of technology is that the way technology works matters to them. But they must also realize that there are cultural biases written into the way technological artifacts are designed. To me the core of contextual history is the nexus between how it works and how it got that way. Technology is not a black box that got that way on its own. But the Western ideology of autonomous progress has enormous, often subconscious, staying power. Most people simply will not look inside the black box. The black box is alive and well in most historical writing.
Historians of technology are the people who will look inside.
They will. Human beings at their most creative try to make things that work, but they leave political imprints on every choice they make. To me this is a powerful and exciting insight.
Tell me about your work contrasting Henry Ford and Diego Rivera.
A conference was being planned, and I was asked to compare technological and artistic creativity. I remember the organizer saying, “How would Picasso be different from Edison and how would they be the same?” I thought about that, about the artist and the technologist, and then I said to myself, “My God, right here in Detroit Diego Rivera painted the River Rouge Ford factory. He painted the murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Henry Ford and Diego Rivera are obvious people to look at.”
The conference fell through, but I stayed with the idea. I started by saying, “You know, they’re both artists, and basically they both did symbolic work.” Now that’s not the only way to put it, but that’s how I wanted to look at them.
What did you learn?
It’s such a great story. Here’s this Marxist artist who has put Ford into a huge mural of his down in Mexico City, along with Rockefeller and all the other thugs of capitalism, as he sees them. That’s the first level of the story. Then Rivera gets to Detroit, and he’s dazzled by Ford and River Rouge and Ford’s museum, the whole deal. And Ford and Rivera really got along with each other. That’s the second level. The Ford family protects Rivera, and they pay Rivera’s fee. But then the really interesting payoff for me is the tension between this second level, where they like each other, and a third level, where they are utterly antithetical. At the second level they share a modernist technocratic idealism. They both really do believe that technologists and technolosv are going to overcome sickness and stupidity and corruption and all those things, more than almost anyone does today.
That’s what Ford and Rivera had in common.
Yes, and it is immensely powerful. But that’s also what makes the last level of analysis so interesting. They are totally different in the way they understand their vision. Ford epitomizes the main strain of Western rationalism: He hates the nonrational; he’s an implacable foe of any interruption to the program. He hates debate, he hates dissent, he hates unpredictability. And Rivera is a passionate, loose-living, wild man who couldn’t get excessively rational to save his life. Even those murals are a paean to progressivism. Every so often I go to the Institute of Arts and just sit and look, and I move across the room and I sit and look from another angle. How many times have I done this? Every time I go there I think, “My God, how did he do this?” It is a magnificent piece of work.
You’ve talked about the creative tension between design decisions that are driven by functional constraints and those that express ideology or symbolic impulses. What about the people who would argue that they’re all driven by ideology or symbolism?
That to me is naive. You just try making an internalcombustion engine out of hardwood, and see how far it gets you. There are design constraints, and to ignore this fact is to leave the pale of the history of technology. That’s what makes it so interesting—the play between the necessary constraints and the ambiguities and the biases and the politics. And that’s what distinguishes us as historians of technology: understanding the power of the design constraints, and understanding the tension between those constraints and contextual constraints. That is the center of the history of technology, the place where exciting things happen.
You have said that good history always transcends the boundaries of the demonstrable. What do you mean?
That’s where I want to go with my book on Henry Ford. I want to raise some questions that you cannot prove or disprove. To me it’s crazy to say that everything ought to be definable. The philosopher Stephen Toulmin, in his book Cosmopolis , asks how we ever got from Erasmus and Shakespeare and Montaigne to Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton—how did that happen? Those earlier people had so much fun with ambiguity! Descartes hates uncertainty and ambiguity. I’d like to leap back over three and a half centuries of absolute rationalism and say, “Why don’t we consider the nonrational along with the rational?”
After all, people plan and try to execute rational strategies for promoting or resisting a given technology, but those same people also respond to the technology affectively, with awe or fear or anger or enthusiasm. We need to learn to understand our technological behavior as a constant blend of these very different modes of consciousness.
People sometimes say that historians of technology tend too much to talk just to one another, yet we’re doing this interview for a journal with a circulation well into six figures.
Oh, the discipline is immensely healthy. There are so many outlets for what we write. We keep attracting very bright, interesting people. On the other hand, it is very easy to underestimate the cultural headwinds that blow in our teeth. I do ten or twelve workshops on technological themes every year, mostly for plain folks. Usually they go away shaking their heads in wonderment, or exclaiming, “By God, this is great stuff.” And I walk away saying, “Ha!”
But then I’ll think, Well, you just spent two hours with seventy-seven people. The EPCOT Center hosts between seventeen and twenty million people per year. EPCOT is doing what you’re doing; it’s teaching lessons about the history of technology. All the really committed historians of technology know that in a sense we’re in competition with all the well-funded publicity machines of corporate America, because they want to tell their oversimplified versions of these stories too.
This isn’t to say that people in our field, even people who are on the left politically, aren’t technological enthusiasts too.
Oh, no! A lot of us like the black box. That’s why I’m in this field. And of course, an engineer is passionate about what he does.
But are we going to make a difference—provide a significant counter to the EPCOT version of history, change the language?
The way I understand things is very much as a believer, because I have had to integrate all this work with my faith. In my ideology humans are immortal but cultures aren’t. Cultures come and go, they live and die. Will the constitutional government of the U.S.A. last for another hundred years? I don’t know. There are signs that are frightening, but there is a lot of classic, delicious, provocative American creativity too.
The way you change language is by working at it. And I think we are changing the language. How you talk about technology is terribly important. We historians have greater access to the public than we had twenty years ago, but I think you have to keep the picture in balance. When I die and have to meet God face-to-face and answer for my life, I would be glad to say, “Well, you know, I did my best to try to get people to respect the human frailties and beauties of technological creativity, because that’s the kind of culture I lived in.”