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Author: David J. Staley
Title: Digital Historiography: Networks
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
November 1999

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Source: Digital Historiography: Networks
David J. Staley

vol. 2, no. 3, November 1999
Article Type: Review

Digital Historiography: Networks

by David J. Staley

Kathryn Henderson, On Line and On Paper: Visual Representations, Visual Culture, and Computer Graphics in Design Engineering. (MIT Press, 1999).

Bonnie A. Nardi and Vicki L. O'Day, Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart (MIT Press, 1999).

The two books under review both rely in part on the theory of actor-networks. This is the theory developed in the mid 1980's by the French sociologists Bruno Latour and Michel Callon which held that humans and objects are bound together by networks of relations, and that both have the capacity to "act" within the context of a technological system. While no one was suggesting that telephones or mass transit systems are sentient, the sociologists were suggesting that the presence of a technology in a system has the capacity of altering the behavior of that system. For example, in a highway construction project, the "actors" would include not only civil engineers, politicians and contractors, but also bulldozers, asphalt and terrain. Whether or not this constitutes "action" on the part of the objects, the theory does point out that technological systems involve the complex interactions between people and technologies.

Actor-network theory examines this interaction between humans and objects, describing the web of relations between coequal players. This theory suggests interesting methodological approaches for historians who wish to understand actor-networks in the past. It also suggests important historiographic directions for those who wish to self-reflexively consider the impact of new technologies on our own actor-network.

I imagine that few historians would notice Kathryn Henderson's book, since the subject is engineering graphics. Yet the book is well worth the attention for three reasons. First, Henderson's methodology suggests interesting directions for historians of technology to pursue. Second, in describing the transition from paper to screen in design engineering, Henderson reveals the effects of the computer on the "visual culture" of the engineering profession. Third, Henderson raises thoughtful questions about the meaning of the term "high-tech."

Henderson is trained in both sociology and art criticism, an interesting combination that leads to unusual insights into the working lives of design engineers. Using the sociological technique of participant-observation, Henderson spent time among design engineers, assessing their reactions to the appearance of CAD (computer-assisted design) technologies in the workplace. Much to my surprise, theengineers—whom I suspected would unconditionally welcome any new technological gadget—have mixed reactions to the new tools.

Henderson observes that engineers have developed practices which have long depended upon the use of hand-drawn sketches. "The conventions of drafting—including rules for encoding three-dimensional shapes on a flat plane—developed in paper-world practice." (24) Adding computer-assisted design technologies to this network of practices has been a mixed blessing. Many of the engineers Henderson interviewed found the new technologies clashed with the "tacit knowledge" they acquired in the paper-world of engineering. For example, when drawing an object, some paper-world engineers prefer two-dimensional "orthogonal" drawings. Maintenance manuals often use "isometric" or three-dimensional drawings, which these engineers see as pretty, but of little use since the three dimensional pictures distort sizes and shapes. Many of the CAD systems Henderson observed create isometric objects, frustratingly useless to mechanical engineers. While this distinction may appear esoteric to a non-specialist, it reflects a fissure between the older accustomed rules of hand-drawn design and newer computer-mediated rules.

This boundary between old and new design methods is not always so clear cut. In fact, the engineers studied by Henderson have adapted some of the newer practices while retaining many of the older methods, not out of habit, but as a coping mechanism. For many of the engineers, the computer does not always mean "better" or "more efficient;" in fact, new technologies are just as often a burden to be dealt with, not a solution to be uncritically embraced. Henderson terms this coexistence of old and new methods "mixed-use practices." The use of older methods is pragmatic, not neo-Luddite, in that engineers rely on those practices—computer aided or not—that efficiently complete the task.

In altering traditional practices, the computer is helping to redefine the "visual culture" of the profession. Henderson's training in art gives her a useful transdisciplinary empathy for her subject. "My years spent learning to sketch and draw," she writes, "made it clear to me that artistic rendering skills were not enrichment frills that were so trivial that school boards could cut them with impunity. I suspected, rather, that they were connected to cognitive skills as basic as mathematics and verbal literacy and equally applicable to all sorts of problem solving—in math and science as well as the visual arts."(vii) Visual literacy is an important component of the practice of engineering. It is not unusual for a design idea to begin as a rough sketch on a napkin, later to be revised and cleaned up through several renderings before the final design is presented to a client. Thus, learning to draw is as important to the engineer as learning to write is to an historian.

Visual objects—renderings of prototypes and other technical objects—are the chief "boundary objects" of the engineering profession. Boundary objects are "material objects that facilitate the coordination of scientific work because they can be interpreted in a tightly focused way by specialists while being simultaneously readable by generalists." (5) Stated another way, boundary objects serve as the currency for a network, in that they facilitate the exchange of ideas between the specialist and generalists in a network. Change the nature of the chief currency and the entire network is profoundly changed.

I found this insight particularly interesting. While historians do not rely to the same degree on visual objects, we most certainly do have our own boundary objects. These take the form of monographs and articles; in fact, one could argue that ours is a network held together by a "textual culture." Henderson has examined the effects of the computer on one network's visual culture and the objects exchanged between its members; who will write a study of the effect of the computer on the historian's textual culture?

Many of the engineers interviewed by Henderson seem unimpressed with the allure of computers. Although the phrase "high technology" is often bandied about by those who wish to sound authoritative, engineers typically scoff at such empty words. To this community, the "high" in "high-tech" refers more to status than to utility. "The designation high tech, like the designation high art, has definite status overtones that only marginally relate to functionality." (189) Computers seem like "symbolic tools," objects recognized by anthropologists as those that "bestow power and status on their possessors not because of their functional capability but because of their status as special objects from special sources and special places within the fabric of the social network including its hierarchy, lineage, and history." (190-91) Thus, in keeping with the theme of mixed-use practices, engineers appear to ignore the more exaggerated attributes of the computer. "While impressive graphics may be used for sales promotions and illustrations in consumer-oriented literature," notes Henderson, "actual conceptual design work is often done with pencil and paper." (196-97) Remember this the next time you witness another Power Point display.

Those who have read Bruno Latour's work, especially his Aramis: Or the Love of Technology will be right at home in this book. While dealing with specialized and technical subject matter, Henderson writes as a knowledgeable outsider, thus making this world easier to understand. While not as apparent as Latour's book, Henderson's does make reference to the actor-network approach. Henderson's approach will also remind some readers of Shoshana Zuboff's work In the Age of the Smart Machine, though this book is easier reading. That book was also a participant-observation study of the modern workplace and the impact of computers on those practices. Finally, art historians will recognize the discussion of "visual culture" pioneered in the work of Svetlana Alpers in The Art of Describing. This blurring of disciplinary pigeonholes makes On Line and On Paper an interesting boundary object.

Where Henderson looks in great detail at one specific network, Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O'Day's fieldwork take them to a half a dozen networks, of libraries and librarians, high-schools and teachers. Again, relying on the actor-network approach, the authors maintain that technological systems are like ecologies: "a system of people, practices, values, and technologies in a particular local environment." (49) The metaphor "ecology" is not to be taken too literally; they mean to use the metaphor as a way of organizing their thoughts and observations, and to contrast these observations with those who see technology either as a simple "tool" (easily controlled) or as an unfathomable "system" (too great to control). In choosing "ecology" as their metaphor for technology, Nardi and O'Day stress actor-networks that exist somewhere between an individual's encounter with a tool and impersonal technological "forces." In keeping with the biological analogy, they are more interested in the organs of the body, not the individual cells or the entire physiology.

Information ecologies share similar characteristics with their biological counterparts. They are systemic, in that the parts and the whole interact in complex ways. Since an information ecology is made up of people and technology along with practices and values, the interactions between these elements cannot help but to produce complex, even unpredictable change. Like a rainforest, if you change one part of an information ecology, then the entire system is affected.

Information ecologies are diverse, in that a variety of tools and people make up any healthy, thriving system. "Monoculture—a fake, brittle ecology—gives sensational results for a short time, then completely fails." (52) The authors suggest, for example, that an ATM machine is not an ecology, since one experiences a small number of technologies, in a simple process with very few other people. A bank, a library, even a Kinko's copy center are examples of diverse, complex ecologies.

Information ecologies are coevolutionary, in that they are not static but constantly changing, while maintaining a global equilibrium. Adding new tools to an ecology, such as computers in a classroom, leads to many changes, but not so many that the entire system falls into entropy. Humans have the capacity to decide how the tools will be used, ensuring the stability of the ecology even if many of the parts have changed. In this sense, an information ecology is homeostatic: dynamic and in flux while maintaining structural stability.

Any ecology has a "keystone species whose presence is crucial to the survival of the ecology itself." (53) In an information ecology, "such species are skilled people whose presence is necessary to support the effective use of technology." (53) Thus, far from eliminating their need, the authors stress, new technologies in a library ecology still require the experience and skills of librarians. Those who fear that technology might replace teachers—as say in a system of "distance learning"—might well heed these observations, and recognize that skillful people are as important to an information ecology as fancy tools.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of information ecologies is their locality. That is, the identity the technology takes is not universal and monolithic; the identity changes depending on its location in specific ecologies. This is not simply a matter of semantics; the same tool might be defined differently—and thus used differently—depending on its ecological context. So for a corporation, a computer is a business tool. For a teacher, a computer is a library. For a researcher, the computer is an archive. For an artist, the computer is a canvas. The same device takes on different characteristics in different ecologies.

In describing actor-networks as ecologies, Nardi and O'Day stress that people ultimately control technologies. They are clearly influenced by the work of Richard Sclove, who argued in his book Democracy and Technology that democratic tools are those that favor participation, and are controlled by people for human ends. There is also a hint of Habermas in this book, in that information ecologies rely on constant feedback in order to remain diverse, healthy and homeostatic. Habermas counseled conversation and communication between specialists and nonspecialitsts as a way to keep science and technology in check; Nardi and O'Day maintain that constant questioning by participants in the system allows for the successful evolution of information ecologies.

These texts suggest interesting methodological and historiographic insights for historians. Historians might, for instance, take the actor-network approach and apply it to information ecologies of the past. Henderson and Nardi and O'Day use the techniques of ethnographic fieldwork and participant-observation to examine contemporary workplaces, offices, libraries and schools. Clearly historians cannot engage so directly with our subjects, but we might begin to use the primary sources at our disposal to examine technological networks and ecologies of the past. The medieval "monastery", the preindustrial "household" and the Midlands "factory" might be interpreted anew as networks and ecologies of people, practices and technologies.

At an historiographic level, historians might also begin to think deeply about how computers and other technologies affect our own actor-network, the information ecology of history. If we stop and observe, we might notice that "the network of history" is as diverse, complex and coevolutionary as an ecology. To identify oneself as an "historian" is to locate oneself in a complex network of librarians, archivists, students, books, articles, microfilm readers, VCRs, card catalogues, archives, libraries, pencils and pens, bluebooks, word processors, dissertations, professional associations, grant applications, seminar rooms, lecture halls, slide projectors, and map transparencies. Adding computers to this ecology will no doubt cause many changes, but I suspect that given its diversity and complexity, the profession of history, like that of design engineering, will retain its overall structural coherence. If the network of history is as healthy and homeostatic as I think it is, then the profession of history will survive the addition of computers.