Collections of Technological Objects
My research focuses on emerging theories of technology in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. One aspect of my current project that might be relevant to the workshop has to do with methods of ordering technological terminology and practices in the most influential publications of the time. These include the technological dictionaries by Johan Jacobsson and Otto Ludwig Hartwig in 1783f. and 1795f., Johann Poppe’s technological lexicon (1816f.), and similar projects published in the first decades of the 19th century by Johann Michael Voit, Joseph Dupin, and others.
One problem to address in this context is that of genre: whereas the technological “dictionary” prevails in the 18th century, after 1800 it faces competition by other genres, such as the Hausbuch, the Kunstbuch, the Handbuch, the Taschenwörterbuch, and the Lexicon. Notable in this context is the work of Johann Beckmann, which includes the massive 23-volume Physikalisch-oeconomische Bibliothek (1770–1807). It is interesting that Bibliothek (library) is the only spatial metaphor in the titles of Beckmann’s output, which he usually designates as “contributions” or “introductions.” One can therefore ask how strategies of collecting and ordering technological language and practices evolve, and what role genre constraints play in this process. This could address the dual objective of the workshop to take a critical look at media inventories as well as to inventory a particular collection of media. I could also introduce a second, tangential question that has to do with material cultures of collecting technological objects. In this case, I would take the history of Johann Beckmann’s own collection of technical objects, which have largely been preserved at Göttingen, as a case study.
I would like to approach nineteenth-century media inventories from two related angles, both of which adopt a second-order perspective on the topic. First, I want to consider how the widespread current efforts to digitize nineteenth-century (and not just nineteenth-century) resources are themselves an inventorying practice, one that can be placed into a productive dialogue with nineteenth-century concerns about information management in order to develop a better sense of what is at stake now and what was at stake then. Chad Wellmon’s recent book, Organizing Enlightenment (2015) will be helpful here, as will some recent discussions by Alan Liu and others around the topic of “critical infrastructure studies.” Second, I would like to look at one or two concrete instances of digital inventories (e.g. Nineteenth-Century Collections Online, Zeitschriften der Aufklärung, The Corvey Collection) and consider how the metadata from these collections can be used to illuminate and analyze key features of the nineteenth-century media archive. To give a concrete example from the cusp of the nineteenth century, information on reviewed titles for the entire run of Friedrich Nicolai’s Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek (1765-1806) can mined for author demographics as well as frequent keywords. These are just initial thoughts, I expect my presentation topic to develop and become more clearly defined over the next few months.
In my roundtable for "Media Inventories of the Nineteenth Century," I will compare my own inventorying practices—which involve using text mining to write a cultural history of the gadget—with those of the nineteenth-century archaeologist Augustus Pitt-Rivers, who over the course of his life collected and catalogued over 50,000 technical artifacts from around the world.
The term gadget was originally nautical slang, emerging among sailors as early as the 1850s, and served as a placeholder for the name of any object on board the ship that had slipped from memory. The term would gain widespread acceptance in the twentieth century, and would be used to describe objects as diverse as dashboard gauges and atomic bombs, can-openers and smartphones. While “gadget” can be a placeholder for any kind of object, even imaginary ones, I argue in my new book––Gadgetry: A History of Techniques––that its evolving application to particular tools and techniques reveals important lessons about our relationship to technology. The gadget is a unique genre, comprising physical objects, conceptions, and habits. For my research on this book, I use databases like the Corpus of Historical American English, Historical American Newspapers, and the Media History Digital Library to collect and tag as many instances of the word as possible. I then sort them into categories I have devised based on how the term is applied: is the gadget handmade or mass produced, seen as important or trivial? Does the word refer to the entirety of the tool or a component within it? Using some simple markup and code that visualizes the rise and fall of the word's cultural valuations, I demonstrate the distinctly vernacular philosophies––the media theories from below––that emerge from users of technology and their everyday practices.
Pitt-Rivers, on the other hand, used Darwin's notion of "unconscious selection" to describe how technology evolves throughout history, arguing that users of a given tool unconsciously contribute to its cumulative evolution by making micro-level decisions and modifications of that tool's usability and efficiency. Pitt-Rivers’s whiggish understanding of technological progress has since been critiqued by anthropologists and historians many times over. In creating a graphic typology of all the artifacts he recovered on a vast spectrum from the simple to the complex, Pitt-Rivers extracted these tools from their historical, geographical, and cultural contexts. Every object was slotted into an abstract, graphical typology, paving over questions of the geography, historical context, and cultures from which these tools emerged. But there are "original and enduring aspects" of his approach to technology that scholars are beginning to revisit, such as his understanding of technical innovation as a cumulative, collaborative process, rather than the product of a lone genius inventor.