Recommended Reading

13Jun07

From a great article I recommend reading… “What Else is New?” By: Steven Shapin. Discussing a new book that makes a point about the way we view technology and the misconceptions that surround it.

Knowing about technology is not the same thing as understanding the scientific theories involved. Just as innovators commonly understand the fundamentals of a technology better than subsequent users, so users can acquire knowledge that would never have occurred to the innovators. In 1817, Thomas Broadwood, a vastly successful English piano manufacturer, visited Beethoven in Vienna and, shortly after, sent the composer a top-of-the-line instrument. Which of these two men understood the piano better—the craftsman-entrepreneur whose product adorned drawing rooms throughout Europe or the deaf genius whose works are a glory of piano repertoire? Or, for that matter, Liszt, who later owned the piano, and could do things at the keyboard that no performer previously could, or the curator in the museum where it resides today? The piano is one thing to a pianist, another to a piano tuner, another to an interior designer with no interest in music, and yet another to a child who wants to avoid practicing. Ultimately, the narrative of what kind of thing a piano is must be a story of all these users. It’s a narrative in which we turn out to know a surprising amount about the technologies that have infiltrated our lives, and in which knowing only as much as we want and need to know about them is, in a sense, to know a lot.

Illustration: Joost Swarte

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