A remarkably lucid and helpful overview of STS, Ideas Machines and Values (Stephen Cutcliffe) encompasses in a brief space a whole host of contentious iconoclasts. Cutcliffe traces the beginnings of STS in the 1960s as academics and activists responded to the more hideous consequences of technology in late 20th American century life: the devastation of the Vietnam war, pesticides in agriculture, slipshod automobile construction. Technology was a force, it seemed, with a life of its own, and that life was uncontrolled and destructive. Of course, that perception of technology was precisely what most STS theorists and activists wished to change: technology had no life apart from the society that sponsored it, that formed its networks and nodes, that allowed and encouraged the competition that determined the products of scientific enquiry. In early stages people interested in STS formed themselves into groups based around different aims: political activism, education and literacy, and theoretical inquiries into the nature of knowing "science" and generating "technology." These three groups are still extant and have their own journals and literature.
The second and third chapters take up development of the theories and literature from the late 1960s to the present. Cutcliffe presents the general difference between positivist and constructivist views of science and technology, and outlines many of the positions in between. He explains the context for the development of Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) in 1958, followed by those sociologists interested in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) and scholars likewise interested in the social construction of technology (SCOT) in the mid-eighties. Their not-quite opponents were the network-focused theorists who argued for an actor-network theory which blurred the distinction between human and non-human elements in the construction of systems of applied science. Not surprisingly, not all scientists were appreciative of the intense methodological scrutiny, and a few were moved to angry irritation by the deconstructionist and post-modern approach to what we can know about reality. It is, indeed, an uncomfortable philosophy. In Science Wars (Chapter 3) Cutcliffe handles the heated, morally-themed controversy which resulted from a paper hoax with more tact that the combatants apparently showed; distance perhaps permits amnesty and charity. In sum, the various scholarly camps within STS have been broadly described as high-church vs. low-church, or theoretical vs. practical, but the real distinctions, to my mind, lie in the metaphors for the elements being combined (people, organizations of people, systems of knowing, objects, and systems of practice) and the emphasis given to what degree each can and does interact with the other. For the present, because of the inescapable effects of globalization, and because globalization calls into question systems of knowing, interesting work might be done by activists and theorists in the realm of culture-and-power.
Cutcliffe closes the work with a review of the current programs and
a biographical essay. While it is, as yet, impossible for me to comment
on the breadth, depth, or completeness of these two reviews, it certainly
affords a beginning scholar like myself a fair scope for inquiry.
What one wonders is how a work which is so very definitely bound to a particular
time will go forward -- further editions, further expansions, more partners
for more years? One thinks of The Elements of Style (more popularly known
as Strunk and White), and all other concisely definitive works, and one
wishes for Ideas, Machines and Values a long thin life.