The new 'Big Picture' of the history of science and technology

The ‘Old Big Picture’, the grand narrative so to speak, of science and technology is often concerned with a specific period of time and geography. That is usually the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution taking place in Western Europe. In both cases the focus is on technical achievements which have led to progress and thus to the diffusion of scientific knowledge throughout the world (Basalla, 1967). However, as other historians, such as Cañizares (2017) and Pomeranz (2000), show, these events are not the same to different people at different times, meaning that there are alternatives to the ‘standard narrative’. Consequently, we should reconsider our ‘Big Picture’.

Cunningham and Williams (1993), offer a ‘New Big Picture’ by suggesting to take different forms of knowledge into account, instead of focusing only on rationality and innovation. But it is not enough to accept the co-existence of several forms of knowledge. Rather, we need to take a broader view of the context in which a specific technology was shaped and how both, context and technology, have evolved over time and across space, leading to a particular construction of narrative. This is because history ultimately consists of “multi-faceted geographical trajectories, relations and effects” (Roberts, 2016, p.336).

In the following sections I will present and discuss several authors who have critically examined the interconnectedness of technology and society and thus its co-evolution. Each of the authors tries to give a more inclusive and broader view of certain events that lead toward a ‘New Big Picture’.

Our understanding of charged terms

Our definition and thus our understanding of certain terms influence the way we think about them (Roberts, 2016, p.338). In the case of technology and scientific knowledge we tend to associate it only with ‘innovation’ and ‘modernity’ (Edgerton, 2007, p.93), which in turn contain certain assumptions. This narrow-mindedness might be because, as the ‘Old Big Picture’ of the Scientific Revolution frames it, our present knowledge seems to be rooted in a “small geographical area” (Basalla, 1967, p.611), namely the West. However, this dichotomy of ‘modern‘ and ‘old’ technologies, but also what is regarded as ‘scientific knowledge’, runs the risk of leading us astray.

With regard to Edgerton (2007) and Hecht (2009), the uneven distribution of knowledge seems to travel both ways, namely from the Third World to the Western World and vice versa. Not only are knowledge and technology, i.e. the material consequences, transferred from the rich to the poor in terms of ‘Western superiority’ (Edgerton, 2007, p.92). But Western ignorance also leads to a lack of recognition of ‘poor technologies’ including the impact it has on ‘modern technologies’, as Hecht points out with the case of uranium mining. Besides, instead of ignoring the ‘poor world’ in relation to technology (Edgerton, 2007, p.85), we should consider that ‘Colonial science’ might be even superior to ‘European science’ (Basalla, 1967, p.614), for example when it comes to recycling ‘old’ technologies. Consequently, a broader understanding of our terms, such as modernity and technology, is necessary to overcome the existing dichotomy. This will then also make it possible to create a ‘New Big Picture’ of the history of science and technology.

To achieve a broader understanding, however, it is not enough to add “hitherto neglected technologies to our histories” (Edgerton, 2007, p.110). Rather, we must consider the whole context of a certain technology, including its development process and its society, and not just its materiality. More specifically, this means that we have to take into account the processes of inclusion and exclusion of social groups and thus the power imbalances during negotiations leading to regulations and standards, but also previous ideas and existing networks on which that technology could be built. Just as McCray (2016) and Edgerton (2007) raise the question, we must ask what is considered technology? So, it is more a concern about the ontology of technology, but also about related terms in general (Roberts, 2016, p.347).

Different meanings lead to different world views

The consequences of having a different understanding of the same term are described by Hecht (2009) in the case of uranium mining. Here different conceptions of “nuclearity” in different countries led to different narratives and thus to different regulations. For a long time, mining uranium was not regarded as a nuclear activity, as is the case with work in nuclear power plants in France. This led to harmful working conditions in several mines in African countries. The question whether radon causes cancer was therefore a geographical issue, and both continents had different answers. One reason for this was the lack of standards and regulations regarding radon levels (Hecht, 2009, p.901). Although actions were taken to measure radon exposure of the workers in the mines, the lack of medical knowledge of local doctors stood in the way of improvement. Even the fact that European doctors reviewed the results years later did not help because the results were not available to the workers. This shows how knowledge regarding “nuclearity” was not evenly distributed among the parties involved. Instead, due to an imbalance of power between the mine workers and European authorities, a “regime of perceptibility” (Hecht, 2009, p.915) was created in which “decision-making responsibilities [were] solely in the hands of expert authorities” (Hecht, 2009, p.923). As a result, the term “nuclearity” carried different world views for different people. This historical process also unveils how politics shape technology and vice versa, which is described as “techno-politics” (Hecht, 2009, p.899).

Co-evolution of technology and societies

The interdependence of technology and politics, or society, is also demonstrated by Mitchell (2009) using the example of oil. He claims that Western countries, especially America, use their superiority to exploit oil reserves in the countries of the Middle East. In order to do so, simply put, the US government interfered several times in the affairs of the respective countries (Mitchell, 2009, p.412). More important, however, are the consequences that the oil brought with it. To name a few: Firstly, after World War II, American policy regulated international oil trade (Mitchell, 2009, p.408) to stabilize the heavily oil-based economy and energy-intensive lifestyle. Secondly, the dollar became the ‘world currency’, since the global financial system was tied to oil and the USA produced most of the world’s oil (Mitchell, 2009, p.414). And thirdly, after the conversion from coal to oil, the entire production and distribution network and thus also the know-how had to be restructured. In summary, not only has technology, in this case oil, shaped the politics and with it its economies of several countries, but also the entire network of knowledge and power (Mitchell, 2009, p.422), which in turn has shaped oil production.

In these two examples, uranium and oil, however, we seem to forget the necessity of these ‘ground work technologies’. Instead, we take them for granted and do not appreciate the underlying structures they offer for ‘modern technologies’ to function or even exist. Similarly McCray (2016) argues, that a technology is a stack of layers of other technologies. Thus, we need to start to realize that our achievements often depend on others (Roberts, 2016, p.347), most likely even on not so ‘modern’ or ‘innovative’ technology.

The same neglect seems to apply to standards. However, standards simplify development, but more important, they allow for compatibility among technologies. Again, we do not recognize the work invested in their creation. This might be because standards become ubiquitous and, to put it in the terms of Hecht, they become imperceptible. Nevertheless, in order to understand the interconnectedness of technoogy and society, it is important to take a closer look at the process of developing standards.

O’Connell (1993) sheds light on the creation of standards by looking at metrology and electrical units. He argues that standards are not only created by society, but rather the standards also create a society around them (O’Connell, 1993, p.130). For example (O’Connell, 1993, p.164), a computer is built by several different companies, who all need some knowledge that they all agree on. This means that standards are passed on from one manufacturer to the next, with all parts working together. Besides, computers can only be used because of electrical standards, i.e. the voltage. This creation of network of standards consists of a long struggle of authority that faces rejection and agreement among different social groups. These negotiations are again a scene of possible power imbalance. It is therefore important to ask how it is that certain standards, or certain values such as simplicity, accuracy or universality, were preferred over others and how general acceptance was established? All these considerations are embedded in standards, which is ultimately a “social agreement” (O’Connell, 1993, p.158), but are nevertheless rarely recognised in the creation of a ‘Big Picture’.


In order to arrive at a ‘New Big Picture’ we have to start rethinking the standard narratives and pay attention to a broader context. This begins by questioning certain terms at hand, such as ‘modernity’. For the meanings of terms determine our thinking about them, and as the case of the uranium mines has shown, different understandings lead to different world views. We must also be aware of the fact, that multiple ‘modernities’ exist simultaneously, as in the case of ‘nuclearities’. The terms therefore differ in a geographical context.

Moreover, these terms are often exclusively coined by certain authorities, such as the West determines what is regarded as technology (Edgerton, 2007, p.93). By “following transnational trajectories” (Roberts, 2016, p.354) and examining the struggles of authorities, it is possible to trace how meanings over time and across space have changed and thus constructed. We have to keep in mind that this process of construction often includes power asymmetries and thus exclusion of social groups. It is therefore important to consider what kind of knowledge was perceptible to whom, and thus how certain terms are perceived.

To make knowledge globally and evenly perceptible, which facilitates and enables the production of technology, standards are necessary. Their process of agreement, however, is often neglected. But it is worth taking a closer look at standards, as they are charged with values and, similar to definitions of terms, tell a story of acceptance and rejection. Furthermore, as O’Connell (1993) and Mitchell (2009) show, standards but also technologies, here oil, are not only created by society but rather they create a society around them. As a result, it is not possible to separate technology and society when studying their history. Instead we have to examine their co-evolution.

In the end, we have to be aware that the history of science and technology consists of “complex networks in which the social and the technical are inseparably intertwined” (Hecht, 2009, p.899). With this awareness we are able to approach a ‘New Big Picture’ of history of science and technology.


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