What is most accurate way to describe the relationship of science and technology? Does one depend upon or precede the other? To whom does an accurate description of the relationship matter? In "Science and Technology," George Wise reviewed the writings of policy makers and historians from 1945 to 1985. He argued that the assembly line was the dominant metaphor and model for an integrated relationship between science and technology from 1945 to 1972. After 1972 historians rejected the assembly line metaphor, and offered a variety of metaphors describing an autonomous relationship, but no clear model was developed. Wises' focus in this article, then, was "on a relatively narrow and unintended dialogue that has occurred over the past forty years between the champions of the assembly-line model and the champions of the various autonomy metaphors." (230)
The assembly line began with "an idea in the head of a scientist." The idea proceeded forward with funding from an agency like the Office of National Research or the National Science Foundation. Gathering shape as it was funded and pushed forward, the idea eventually became, at the end of the line, a useful military or civilian technology. Wise identified Vannevar Bush and James B. Conant as the co-founders of this image, and the key document as Science, the Endless Frontier, first published in 1945 and reprinted and reaffirmed as lately as 1980. However, historians in the post-war period approached the assembly line metaphor with a cautious hand: I. Bernhard Cohen, writing broadly, and Kendall Birr, focused specifically on General Electric, hedged and qualified the power of pure science to generate technical innovation. Economists John Jewkes, David Sawers, and Richard Stillerman, listing key 20th century inventions, simply disagreed that pure science was the motivation for technical innovation.
Wise notes three 1960 era projects that were undertaken by the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the Materials Science Board to test the assembly line idea. Unsurprisingly, they came to varied conclusions. Historians explored particular cases and alternative models, among them Cyril Stanley Smith in materials science, Lynwood Bryant in combustion engines, Thomas Hughes and James Brittain in electrical technology, Terry Reynolds in water-power technology, Bruce Sinclair in engineering, and Walter Vincenti in moving fluids. Joseph Schmooker used patents as they mirrored economic ups and downs to indicate that economics, not science, drove technological development. The essence of these alternatives can be summed up in the phrase "technology is knowledge." (234)
Since technology was believed to have a knowledge base separate from science, and not dependent on it, new metaphors for the relationship between the two were needed. Edward Layton, for example, portrayed science and engineering as mirror-image twins, and Derek Price invoked military and meteorological metaphors. Weather, war, marriage, döppelgangers, lemons, and geography were suggested, but after 1972, the assembly line was abandoned by historians. Policy-makers and scientists, by contrast, were slower to move to new understandings. For policy-makers, even though the evidence of studies was inconclusive, the story contained in the assembly line metaphor was easy to understand and fund, and has not yet been replaced by a more compelling story, or model, of technological development. For physicists, the metaphor contained a claim about primacy which had long been a fruitful source of funding.
Wise suggested three parts of a model which have yet to be properly
assembled, but which may form part of a future synthesis. First,
technology is pushed forward by a presumptive anomaly
-- that is, the understanding by a few visionaries that the current technology will not meet future demand. Examples of such visionary efforts might include Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray's interest in duplexing telegraph signals. Historians Robert Bruce, David Hounshell, Hugh Aitken, Ernest Braun, Stuart MacDonald, Lillian Hoddeson and Joan Bromberg have looked at the complex recursive and consumer-driven development of radio, microelectronics and the delayed-too-long magnetically-contained fusion. Sometimes inventions in technology have pushed science forward. Astronomy is a particularly illustrative case for technology as the primary moving force in scientific understanding of the galaxies and the universe. Second, internal momentum, or salients, and pressures, are a way of organizing and understanding growth patterns. Scientists are "little in evidence" in such models. (241) Rather, business communities and scientific groups solve immediate problems, organize systems, and produce, when possible, profit until salient problems --critical problems --hold up the systems and profits. Regional business networks grow through the momentum gained when technological problems are solved. Finally, the research entrepreneur has been identified as a key figure in the growth of technology. Joseph Henry, Charles Page, Thomas Edison and Charles Kettering have been studied in that light, and organizations as amorphous as the government or Cal Tech have served as patrons in recent studies.
Wise devoted a short space to a class reading, Daniel Kevles's The Physicists, and suggested that Kevles denied the influence business or technology on the development of physics but did see new patrons as influential in the creation of the modern interdisciplinary research labs. Physicists, capitalists and politicians found a "compromise that satisfied all of them:" through the 1970s, scientists retained their independence, but supported the government need for national defense (244). The rationale for the compromise? That long-lived metaphor, the assembly line. Certainly the metaphor mattered to the groups who stood to gain funding, jobs, prestige.
Having gathered the pieces, Wise summarizes a possible alternative model to the assembly line as follows:
"technology [is] an autonomous body of knowledge enriched but not driven by science. Major innovation emerges when creative individuals understand market needs, envision the future limits of current ways of meeting those needs, and acquire insight into new ways of overcoming the limits. Once innovation creates a new field of technology, that field generates its own internal logic of momentum, reverse salients, and response to internal pressures. Research entrepreneurs find ways of drawing idealistic scientists and engineers into attacks on the fields practical problems. Eventually those ways become frozen into institutions and policies." (245)
In this vision the two disciplines stand side-by-side. Innovators anticipating the need for new technology move the field forward, drawing perhaps, on solutions from either discipline, but not necessarily needing science for inspiration or guidance. Technology's internal momentum is maintained by system builders and research entrepreneurs, who focus energy on critical problems and gather consumers with an interest in seeing the technology developed into a useful product.
Does it matter what model, what metaphor, is used to describe the relationship between science and technology? Patrons with money to spend sensibly, policy-makers with nations to defend, scientists with jobs to win, think it does. (Historians with Ph.D.s yet to earn may also scent a fruitful topic.) As Wise points out, unlike models, metaphors are not particularly useful for prediction. However, they do guide and govern what can be asked or thought about a relationship. In the spirit of the effort, I want to offer my own metaphor (simile), based on a teamwork exercise I participated in last summer, and make a general comment on successful political metaphors.
Imagine two boards lying on the ground, about 6 feet long and 1 foot wide. Evenly spaced down the center of the board are three holes, and threaded through the holes are ropes about three feet long. Five people stand on the boards, each one facing the back of the person in front, left foot on one board, right foot on the other. Three of the five hold the ropes in their hand. The person standing at the end of the boards, facing forward, is the leader. He or she shouts out "left" and everyone lifts that foot and swings the left board forward. Then "right" is called and everyone steps and swings the right board forward. When everyone is coordinated, the team can move forward surprisingly swiftly. But if someone gets confused, or off-balance, the whole effort is abruptly halted. Or if the people behind, who cannot see, refuse to move forward because they doubt the direction chosen by the leader, the enterprise is likewise halted.
It seems to me that technology and science are like those parallel boards. A problem in technology may need to wait for a scientist to explicate the difficulty, and a scientific theory may need an accomplished technician to test it. They are pushed/pulled toward a chosen goal; one effort cannot proceed very far forward without the other. The effort creates a jerky and awkward ride, and so it may seem to the members of a group with a common stake in solving a scientific or technical problem. If, for instance, the financial patron falls off, the project halts. If the leader cannot convince his group that he has chosen the correct problem to address, again, the effort stops. The direction -- the momentum of research and effort -- is chosen by the people standing "on top." Like technology or science, the boards themselves do not choose the direction, the people do, but the boards, like the scope of a scientific or technical problem, may be longer or shorter, and require more or fewer people to be operated.
For policy-makers the most appealing metaphors, the most likely to be
persuasive, are those which indicate movement, and which indicate where
to apply the money to generate the movement. The assembly line was
quite clear on those two points. Twins, lemons, and so on, haven't
got the beauty of the assembly line's teleology. Likewise, weather and
military metaphors may be uncomfortable because they indicate powers beyond
control, scenes of waste and failure, complexity and unpredictability.
It would be difficult to know how to fund a weather system, and war metaphors
raise mixed feelings. The assembly line's staying power may simply
be that it invoked images of confidence and success. The next successful
model will probably incorporate the same simplicity and good feeling.