My new piece on the guillotine in Cosmologics Magazine: “The idea of an unerring, public execution machine embodied both a belief in the redemptive power of sentiment and an anxiety about the perils of unsettling human emotion.” The full-length journal article is available in History of the Human Sciences.
What does a natural disaster look like? My recent post on the MIT Press Blogexplores 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.
This chapter forms part of a flourishing interest in histories of maintenance. It explores how maintenance and repair became an object of intense interest for the cold-war human sciences. Some of the key concerns of maintenance are to watch, observe and guard—all activities central to the experience of the Cold War. In that context, the figure of the maintenance technician itself became a focus of intense observation and anxiety for the human sciences. Taken up by engineering psychology, it was quickly positioned at the intersection of a newly rationalized material culture of war, and a set of legible human capacities designed to repair that culture when it broke down. The problem of making electronics reliable was, for engineering psychologists, a problem of defining technicians as figures who could think and act in trustworthy ways.
The full chapter appears in the edited volume, Cold War Social Science: Knowledge Production, Liberal Democracy, and Human Nature, eds. Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens. You can find it here.
This paper, planned for a special issue of Osiris, explores how spectacular failures in complex systems transformed the category of “accidents” in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The vast expansion of Victorian rail networks in the 1840s and 1850s helped create a society of strangers that defined both modern Britain and modernity itself. But that expansion also created deep anxieties about the dangers of large-scale systems, their tendency to multiply horrific accidents, and even to make those accidents inevitable. Whereas accidents had previously been freak occurrences, by the 1860s, railway systems were seen as the material sites where impossible conjunctions of imperfect materials, flawed humans, and failing machines routinely came together to threaten a newly nervous public. The paper examines the attempts to develop a systematic knowledge of technological accidents and their shifting nature, from freak occurrence to looming inevitability. It highlights the role of the anxious traveling public in that transformation — a public these accidents helped create. It explores the suite of modern remedies — timetables, management practices, system maps — designed to bring accidents under control. And it focuses on the rise of a way of thinking about technological failures that tied anxieties about unreliable humans to fears of untrustworthy machines. In doing so, the paper aims to remind us how “making things work” has always been bound up with fraught questions over why and how things fail. Victorian observers furnished one particularly powerful and enduring way of thinking about accidents, responsibility, and social order in an age of distributed causality.