Lecture by Prof. Paul Josephson: "'New materialism', history, history of technology and environmental history"

On November 8, 2018, Paul Josephson, Colby College's Russian and Soviet history professor, delivered a lecture "'New materialism', history, history of technology and environmental history" at the Centre for the History of Ideas and Sociology of Knowledge at IGITI. We present a reportage of the event.

Prof. Paul Josephson is the author of 14 books on the history of science and technology of the 20th century. He works on projects devoted to the problems of "big science" and large technological objects.

The key ideas of his lecture "'New materialism', history, history of technology and environmental history" were the connection of technology and politics, as well as the manifestation of culture and values ​​in technical artifacts. There is a common idea that technical objects by themselves are neutral, apolitical, they are tools that can be used for good or for harm. However, historical analysis indicates that sociocultural intentions and interests are read into the very structure of the artifacts. P. Josephson noted that the manifestation of power and politics is revealed not only in large national projects, but also in everyday artifacts, as illustrated by his studies of the history of fish sticks, women's sports bras and “speed bumps”.

The central concept of the lecture was “large technological systems” (T. Hughes). Josephson suggests an even stronger concept - “brute force technology”, emphasizing not only the combination of material and social elements and the interaction of the system and the environment, but also the forms of technology influence on landscapes and communities. Among the examples he mentioned cases from different countries (Brazil, China, USSR, USA) such as huge hydroelectric power stations, an atomic icebreaker, projects for the managing water resources and construction of highways. Large technological projects serve as a symbol of human victory over nature, they concentrate resources, legitimize political regimes, but at the same time destroy landscapes and marginalize entire communities. Technologies of brute force, according to Josephson, modify nature, turn it into something machine-like and predictable, while producing centralized management practices (“brute force politics”), which exclude actors from the decision-making process.

IGITI Research Fellow Nataliya Nikiforova was an opponent. In her comment, she elaborated the issue of technological symbolism in connection with the representation of power in large national technical projects. Such projects, being universal in their attempt to submit nature, can be idiosyncratic in terms of social representations, expectations, fears, hopes that are taken into account (what S. Yasanoff refers to as “sociotechnical imaginary”). Different social meanings can be embodied in different material configurations of objects and systems (as shown by G. Hecht, in her analysis of techno-political regimes in building nuclear reactors in France).

Prof. Josephson pointed out that different states associate various semantic horizons with their technical projects, but serious destructive consequences are universal. The historical consideration of technological projects and their environmental consequences, in his opinion, problematizes the uncompromising “western mode” of progress. In many of his works, P. Josephson points out the need to be aware of this destructiveness, to form a civic position, and to develop strategies for resistance and user ethics.

Author: Nataliya Nikiforova