The System of All Things?

For a video promo, advertising new online courses offered in the History Department at McMaster University, I referred to my own class, HIST 2EE3: Science and Technology in World History, as “Grand Central Station.”

Below, a brief reflection on what I meant and a brief pitch for the course, which remains the flagship for my offerings at the intersections of the histories of science, technology, and environment at McMaster University.

History of the Future

At the risk of adding even further to the chaotic eclecticism that’s been the first week of this blog, here’s another direction or angle or perspective that I pursue. Since graduate school, I’ve been fascinated with the history of the future. Not so much as historians having some special felicity with predicting the future (nope), but how the future is a wildly understudied facet of the human past. We’re constantly thinking about the future (even historians), from checking the weather, to making grocery lists for the week, to looking forward to vacations or travel or time off, etc. It would be very interesting to develop a larger historical project on these kinds of mundane features of the future, but my focus has tended toward the history of technology and its relationship to the environment.

Sverker Sörlin, Libby Robin, and Paul Warde have been doing some exciting work on environmental prediction, and I know of a few historians who have taken an interest in futurism. My own project—very much in the pipeline phase at the moment—is currently organized around “Thinkers,” “Planners,” and “Makers.” Loosely, the first involves an intellectual history of the future (and touches on futurism, sci fi, etc.); the second considers planning, design, and prediction; and the final section is still fairly poorly conceived, but I want a place to investigate the Jay Wright Forresters and Buckminster Fullers of the world. Or at least that’s the current plan.

This has also been a teaching interest of mine. I’ve taught “The History of the Future” twice at McMaster over the past few years, and after removing the course from our calendar to make way for teaching the history of sustainability, I reintroduced it this past year, and hope to teach it again soon. Here’s a copy of the syllabus from the last time I taught it: 3UU3_Syllabus_2009. I had a really good group of students who bought in and made this a really fun class. I had roughly 100 students in the room, but the culture of the class made it feel more like a seminar with lots of good questions during and after each session. The next time I teach it, I will likely revise the courseware materials and the course direction, in order to try to organize the course around the future writing project. I’ll write more about the course concepts in the future; this was an interesting and effective way to talk about technological systems.

Histories of Science, Technology, and the Environment

When I was hired at McMaster (in 2005), the position called for an historian of science & technology. Which I sort of was. A little, anyway. I had completed my PhD in environmental history, but my dissertation considered the biologist Barry Commoner’s career as a social and environmental activist. As a result, I was rather interested in questions pertaining to science and society and the scientist’s social responsibility. For Commoner, the post-World War II environmental crisis was a product of poor technological decisions and short-sighted modes of production. I spent the year after completing my PhD as a fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, where I began work on my current mercury project. Much of that year was spent transforming myself into something approximating an historian of science (I’d had no previous formal training in this field). So: sort of, kind of, an historian of science and technology.

Caveat: the histories of science and technology writ large are two very distinct fields with very distinct disciplinary and professional backgrounds and markedly different historiographies. I made a point of stressing this during my interview, but then concentrated on the ways they could be brought together. After all, as much as they are distinct fields or sub disciplines of history, there are some explicit overlaps, especially in the context of twentieth-century history. And those overlaps, especially when they intersected with environmental issues, were at the heart of my own research agenda. Environmental historians are an accepting bunch, but the kinds of work I do have long been outside the realm of “real” history of science. Which is odd, and a shame. At conferences, blue-blood history of science colleagues would be disparaging about my efforts to teach a global history of science and technology as a second-year survey course. All this to say that I’ve long thought of myself as working between three fields. Or four. The other natural intersection here is with STS, and I’ve found myself an eclectic reader in that over the past several years.

Things are starting to change, though, and rather than thinking about myself as not having a singular intellectual home, there seems to be a growing trend among a younger generation of scholars intent on working in much the same kinds of interstices as I am. In August 2010, I attended a workshop in Trondheim, Norway, that sought to bring STS and environmental history in more explicit conversation with each other and the warm reception to the MIT series suggests there is strong interest in seeing how these sub disciplines talk to each other. Earlier this week, I came across this bio of my friend and colleague, Ben Cohen (he of anti-ant fame). It’s a nice write-up (and his office looks much nicer than mine), but midway through the article, Ben says:

The history of science, technology, and the environment reveals a world where people made decisions based on particular conditions in particular places about how to live in nature.

Nice. But what struck me was Ben’s singular use of “history.” Where I’ve been trying to juggle three things, Ben is doing one (and he does it very well, by the way; check out his book, Notes from the Ground). Maybe this is all semantics. Maybe it’s silly, academic territoriality that really doesn’t mean much of anything. But it suggests an appealing intellectual starting point for what I do. I may have to start thinking about my field in a singular manner…