This talk explores how modern observers from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries understood the failure of machines as a problem of the self— a problem of the kinds of people that failing machines created, or threatened, or presupposed. The modern period saw the rise of a public theatre of machines, whose failure threatened the social relations, political priorities, and economic interests that depended on it. For all the large-scale disruptions that failing machines occasioned, though, contemporaries framed their most pressing worries around small-scale concerns about the self, and specifically about what kinds of people we are (or should be) in the face of failing machines. From 18th-century sentimentalism and the guillotine, through Victorians’ nervous fascination with railway accidents, to industrial breakdowns in Jazz-Age America, this talk excavates the largely-forgotten sources, settings, characters, and concerns that linked selves and social orders to the problematic workings of technology. Connecting those developments to our own worries in the early 21st century, the talk encourages us to reimagine the history of modern technology as a history of the technological self, and the machines and social orders it made possible.
This talk is the tenth session in the UBC History Department's Colloquium Series 2017 - 2018: Histories on the Edge. It is co-sponsored by the UBC STS Program.