Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book Review: Making Technology Masculine

Douglas Tilden's Mechanics Fountain
I'm not usually the type to go around advocating the reading of highly topic-specific historical academic books to the general reader -- I'm the type of person who reacts with completely over-the-top glee when handed books like Dorothy Smith's Conceptual Practices of Power, but unlike some academics, I look on that as a semi-bizarre and awkward character trait rather than as a normal attitude towards reading -- but I'm going to make an exception here for a book I just recently finished. 

Ruth Oldenziel's Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women and Modern Machines in America, 1870-1945 is a brilliant cultural history of technology and innovation in the industrial age and the implications of this history for contemporary understandings of technology today. While this may sound like dry stuff, Oldenziel's passion for contentious politics makes the the narrative pop. From the industrial spectacle of the World's Fairs to the institutionalization of engineering as a profession centered on white, middle-class masculinity, Making Technology Masculine uses historical materials to the best possible advantage, eschewing long-winded theoretical pontification in favour of a well developed argument and interesting historical tidbits. 

The book chronicles the rise of technology as a central cultural keyword in American life at the turn of the century. In the midst of the shift from an agricultural economy to a one based on manufacturing and industry, the concept of 'technology' eclipsed the idea of the 'useful arts' as one embodying industriousness, innovation, and technical skill. While the inventions and skills of women were encompassed by the old category, the simultaneous emergence of the idea of technology and the profession of engineering made for a cultural context where women (as well as Blacks, immigrants, and skilled and unskilled labour) were barred from participation. Oldenziel spends a significant amount of time exploring the women inventors and engineers who've been lost from this history, but the book truly shines in its lengthy examination of the relationship between masculinity, middle-classness, and technology. Rather than just being another interesting women's history, Making Technology Masculine is a history of the relationships between the men who composed labour and capital, and the building and maintenance of boundaries between these groups by a professional management class composed of men who saw themselves as technical experts driven by science, rather than ideology. Oldenziel is at her most compelling when documenting the boundary work that went into the development of the engineering profession, looking at historical artifacts from professional journals to autobiographies and travelogues, from patent office submissions to World's Fair photographs. Making Technology Masculine is a wonderful book not only for scholars interested in the intersecting histories of gender and technology, but also for the general reader who wants to better understand the contentious history of industrial management and engineering in America. 

1 comment:

Matt K said...

This sounds extremely relevant to my interests. Adding to my list.

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