Blog Post #10 Misa

Thomas J. Misa is the director of the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota. The institute “makes primary source materials relating to the history of information technology available for researchers”. According to his website, Misa has also taught “courses on computer history, the global economy, technology and culture, business history, industrial culture, technological risk, and history of engineering”. Misa’s publication history covers an impressive range of technological history topics, from his 1998 work A Nation of Steel: The Making of Modern America, 1865-1925 (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology) to his most recent publication, FastLane: Managing Science in the Internet World with Jeffrey R. Yost, which interrogates a the national science foundation Fastlane Program, a grants management database.

From Leonardo to the Internet provides an overview of “the relationship between technology and society” that spans half a millennia, starting with the relationship between the court system of patronage and technological growth during the Medici period of Italy. As discussed in class, Misa never provides readers with a stable definition of “technology”, and he highlights this in the last chapter of his book:

The term technology has a specific if largely unwritten history, but in this book I have used it in a broad and flexible way. Indeed, my underlying goal has been to display the variety of technologies, to describe how they change across time, and to understand how they interacted with societies and cultures. The key point is that technologies are consequential for social and political futures. I have not found a simple definition of technology that vividly conveys the variety of its forms or adequately emphasizes the social and cultural interactions and consequences that I believe are essential to understand” (p. 300).

Much like Headrick’s When Information Came of Age, Misa’s title provides a detailed (but readable) overview of specific historical events and the technologies created during those periods. Unlike Headrick’s text, Misa spends significantly more time discussing the political and social machinations that took place in tandem with the technological advances, and allows the reader to ponder if the technology led the cultural developments or if the cultural developments were responsible for the technology.

I think that Misa’s work deserves its place on the T&T reading list, and that the above block quote illustrates the importance of the text for the program. Misa’s text seeks to make explicit the connection between technology and society, and provides readers a solid foundation for future research in the topic.

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