I had a lovely time in Pittsburgh last weekend with a crowd of historians of technology. Here, the highlights of the conference from a Suzanne perspective. 140 character highlights can be found by searching the #shot09 hashtag (which was mostly me).
Plenary at the Heinz History Center, where I had a chance to see their new Innovation exhibit, which is a history of Pittsburgh through the lens of particular innovations. I was particularly taken with the mining safety equipment section, which was interpreted in such a way as to make me sudden realize how interesting mining safety equipment is. There was also the interactive where you could speak with George Westinghouse on video and hear about his inventions (“No, I didn’t invent the telephone,”), though he stares creepily at you if you try to walk away. The plenary was by Brian Hayes, who showed lovely photos of power stations.
Friday morning was our session on Web 2.0 and the History of Technology. There was no internet in the conference rooms, for some nonsensical reason, so we all had to talk from screenshots. Mike Geselowitz from the IEEE History Center talked about their interesting IEEE Global History Network, a wiki project to capture engineers’ stories. It allows for single-authoring of some articles (“Why would I write my stories if anybody could come change them?”), with a mix of personal stories of technologists and NPOV articles on projects and concepts. Highly recommended. Stephanie Crowe spoke about the Charles Babbage Institute‘s recent projects, including a project to capture information about photos from their Control Data Corporation archives, and their google sites project. I took up the rear and got very excited about failed projects, John Cotton Dana, and the value of amateur historians (paper up soon. really). There were lots of excellent questions, and the panel was really helped by being composed of an archivist, a museum person and someone who works at a research center without physical collections, so it was a great LAM convergence incident. This panel was quite unlike most sessions at SHOT, which generally consist of three papers about historical research.
One of the great joys of museum work is that it has freed me to become a generalist, so I went to the sessions that seemed particularly awesome. Great papers included Alice Goff’s, on the “recording lag” between recording and listening, in the context of a cylinder record archive in Berlin of ethnomusicological recordings. She explored what it meant for Western anthropologists to transcribe nonwestern musics, and what got changed in the lag. Alexandra Hui’s comment on this session was really insightful, noting that when we listen to the past, we hear mostly silence, and that thinking about sound and sound recording is an exercise in thinking about embodiment and being human.
A fascinating session called “Reforming Technology to Serve Community” discussed technology use in Plain Anabaptist communities: Amish, Old Order Mennonite and Hutterite. The papers, by the Anabaptist Studies scholar Donald Kraybill, Judson Reid from Cornell’s extension service, and Rod Janzen, were sociological and descriptive of technology use and decision making. Considering these 3 communities was valuable comparatively: the Amish consider technological choices on a congregational level, the Old Order Mennonites on a national level, and the Hutterites hold everything in common and thus are less worried about the community effects of (for instance) precision ag equipment. Arwen Mohun, in her comment, gave the session a valuable historical perspective. She agreed that the Amish are good to “think with” in terms of technological determinism and invited us to consider how these communities are similar to others which with we are more familiar historically which also do boundary control around technology, using as an example the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on contraceptives. She noted that these plain communities did not advance an alternative economy or an alternative to capitalism but stood as consumers and in some ways parasites on the larger culture (in the same way, I thought to myself, as dumpster diving types do). But this insight is why the Amish distinction between use and ownership of technology matters. The session was a great exploration of how a clear vision of community can shape technological cultures.
A session on users and consumers was also excellent (though not super well attended! What were you all thinking? Did everyone go to the robot session?). I really enjoyed Susan Spellman’s paper on how small businessmen were early adopters of, and drove innovations in, cash register development, particularly at National Cash Register, which she found some rich archival materials on. Zbigniew Stachniak and Dov Lungu’s paper on TRACE, Toronto Region Association of Computer Enthusiasts, a 1970s hobbyist group, gave a great snapshot into the rise and fall of a hobbyist group and the shape of regional amateur computing associations.
There was a lunch for museum people, during which we hatched great plans. More on this later.
I also enjoyed a session on Technology and Culture in Post-Industrial Landscapes. Jordan Kleiman spoke on the Bronx Frontier Development Corporation, which did community development and environmental work in the South Bronx in the late 1970s (and honestly reminded me of many current Detroit organizations). Pat Munday gave maybe the conference’s best talk on the convergence of enviromental cleanup and historic preservation in Butte, Montana. Butte is the country’s largest superfund site as well as a site of industrial heritage, both due to the culture and technology of copper mining. Labor history and continued resistance to The Company helped galvanize preservation efforts. On the historic “gallows frames” on the pit mines, which the company threatened to take down, one miner/preservationist said “You take the first one down and you’ll hang from the second.” The last paper was from Frank Uekotter, who spoke on “The Ruhr as Germany’s Pittsburgh” and considered the effects of this industrial heritage area. A comment came from Matt Mehalik, director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, who flatteringly saw SHOT as a corrective to the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, that history is key to healing and preventing post-industrial landscapes.
All in all, a fine conference. I felt less beleagured than usual as a museum person at an academic conference, I walked around a city I like, and I spent time with long-lost friends. Thanks, SHOT.