The Social and Cultural Lives of Technology
I am a historian of the social and cultural life of machines, with a focus on modern Europe and North America. I write about topics ranging from the history of music studios and artificial intelligence to the technological geographies of islands. But my research generally examines the historical intersections of technology, culture, and social order. I’m particularly interested in exploring histories of technological failure — breakdowns, malfunctions, accidents — and what they reveal about the place of machines, and the stakes of machine failures, in the culture, politics, and economics of modern societies.
My first book, The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War (MIT Press, 2017), won the Sidney Edelstein Prize for the best scholarly book in the field of history of technology. My current book project, Reliable Humans: Trustworthy Machines, examines how people from the late-18th to the mid-20th centuries understood machine failures as a problem of the self — a problem of the kinds of people that failing machines created, or threatened, or presupposed.
I received my PhD in history of science and technology from Harvard University and I’m currently Associate Professor of History at York University in Toronto, Canada, where I teaches courses in technology studies, the history of disasters, and modern cultural history. I am a co-founder of Toronto’s TechnoScience Salon, a public forum for humanities-based discussions about science and technology. From 2009-13, I served as Associate Director of York’s Institute for Science and Technology Studies (iSTS). In 2017, I received the Abbott Payson Usher Prize from the Society for the History of Technology.
Sidney Edlestein Prize
The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017)
Winner of the 2018 Sidney Edelstein Prize from the Society for the History of Technology. The Edelstein Prize is awarded to “an outstanding scholarly book published in the history of technology during the preceding three years.”
Abbott Payson Usher Prize
Malleability and Machines: Glenn Gould and the Technological Self
Winner of the 2017 Abbott Payson Usher Prize. The Usher Prize is awarded annually to “the author of the best scholarly work published during the preceding three years under the auspices of the Society for the History of Technology.”
Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies
I was recently interviewed for a new documentary featuring Shepard Fairey, Astra Taylor, Ai Weiwei, and others. It premieres April 28th at the HotDocs Film Festival and will be available on PBS: “In a world where access to media is unprecedented, the global conversation around the propagation of information, “alternative facts” and “fake news” has never been more heated. As media outlets become increasingly polarized, and as social media rules information feeds, where does propaganda come into play? How is it influencing changes in the world order? Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies demystifies the predominant means and methods of propagandist persuasion that have been employed by those seeking power. It explores and analyzes the present day landscape and contextualizes it by looking back at key epochs of history when propaganda defined nations and kept populations in check.”
Natural Disasters and Technological Failures
What does a natural disaster look like? This post on the MIT Press Blog explores how failing machines and technological infrastructures shape our understandings of the natural world and its catastrophic potentials. Read the full post here: https://mitpress.mit.edu/blog/natural-disasters-and-technological-failures.
The Dangers of Systems
This chapter from Reliable Humans, Trustworthy Machines explores how spectacular failures in complex systems transformed the category of “accidents” in the middle decades of the nineteenth century.
Made Modern examines the complex interconnections between science, technology, and modernity in Canada. Co-edited with Tina Adcock, it’s the first major collection of its kind in thirty years, drawing together wide-ranging topics to interrogate the place of science and technology in shaping Canadians’ experience of themselves and their place in the modern world.