Organized Session

SHOT Joint Session

Explaining Everything: Models, Machines, and Black Boxes in Histories of Science and Technology

Organizer

Lan A. Li

Rice University

Chair

Elizabeth R. Petrick

Rice University

Metadata

Session Abstract

The history of science and technology is full of tendencies to universalize. One concept can explain all of human behavior. One technology can accommodate all bodies. One theory can illuminate all therapeutic mechanism. Historians, too—like our historical actors—also fall into the trap of assuming narratives that generalize too ambitiously. We can find around the world genuine human agency; we can find in many places technical sophistication; we can find across contexts robust solutions for solving problems. Yet, at what scale do ideas, technologies, and techniques generalize?
To address this question, “Explaining Everything” takes on black boxes as a mode of inquiry to compare histories of science and technology. We examine cases that critique the application of conceptual black boxes, actual black boxes, and discursive black boxing. The following papers range from evolutionary theory to computing technologies, and move from revisionist historical narratives to revisionist historiographies. By surveying English sexologists (Alaniz), German computing engineers (Müggenburg), Sri Lankan surgeons (Li), and Indian architects (Venkat), we aim to develop a foundation across historical periods and geographic areas to join perspectives in feminist STS and dis/ability studies. In surveying a history of ideas and a history of things, this panel seeks to queer science and technology through reframing historical cases rarely placed in direct conversation within the field.

Presenter 1

Body Boxes: Sexual Inversion and the Embodiment of Sexual Selection

Rodolfo John Alaniz

Institute for Historical Studies

Abstract

Sexology developed in the late nineteenth century amidst debates over sexual selection's applicability to humans. During this period, clinicians observed the body hoping to see whether humans acted according to Darwin's evolutionary mechanisms. Yet, these observations proved more complex than anticipated; many of these researchers found it difficult to conceptualize the process of human attraction. While the production of offspring is an observable phenomenon, each group of clinicians brought its own set of assumptions about the way human attraction operated as a reproductive mechanism. The internal, psychological elements of human sexuality were beyond traditional sensory observation. Nonetheless, contemporary sexologists gathered their observations in an attempt to model human sexual behaviors in a way that matched their clinical experiences. The most troublesome of these issues was same-sex attraction, a phenomenon that did not create offspring, and how it fit into the Darwinian paradigm. This talk focuses on the work of the English sexologist Havelock Ellis, author of Sexual Inversion (1896), and his interventions into the late nineteenth-century sexual selection debates. Specifically, I will describe contemporary clinical observations of sexual dimorphism and their relationship to same-sex attraction. Ultimately, I argue that Ellis used these clinical observations to model human attraction and, by doing so, repositioned sexual inversion within an evolutionary framework.

Metadata

Presenter 2

Functional Boxes: UNIFACE, the Personal Computer, and Accessibility in 1990s Germany

Jan Müggenburg

Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media (ICAM) Leuphana University

Abstract

At first glance, the UNIFACE-Computer Mouse, designed at the German Forschungsinstitut Technologie-Behindertenhilfe (FTB), was an unimpressive object: It looked like a standard computer-mouse to which an odd-looking adapter with two cables had been attached. The adapter, however, could be used to connect alternative input-devices to the mouse, in order to make Personal Computers more accessible to "users with disabilities." Instead of an interface this device was meant to be a 'uniface'- granting access to any user regardless of age or "disabilities." Similar to US institutions such as the Trace Research & Development Center at the University of Wisconsin, research at the FTB in the early 1990s combined research in the field of Augmented and Alternative-Communication (AAC) with the development of alternative hardand software for the computer use of people with dis/abilities. Drawing on frameworks from Media Archaeology, History of Computing and History of the Sciences this paper addresses the convergence of computer science, robotics, cybernetics and psychology under the label of 'rehabilitation technology' in Germany during that time. It identifies the concepts of 'access', 'disability', 'computing' and 'communication' as guiding for research and development at the FTB. The paper argues that the step from interfaces to 'unifaces' can be described as a back-and-forth of opening and closing of black boxes. Although engineers at FTB broke with the concept of a 'normal user', 'unifacing' the personal computer was nevertheless based on the introduction of new simplifications and opacities in regards to the co-constitution of dis/abilities.

Metadata

Presenter 3

Battery Boxes: Cyborg Connections and Cesarean Sections in Colombo (1962-1985)

Lan A. Li

Rice University

Abstract

In 1962, the Sri Lankan physician Anton Jayasuriya landed in Kazakhstan. He had spent eight years training as a physician in Sri Lanka and arrived at the World Health Organization's Alma-Ata conference to learn more. In particular, he was curious about developing affordable health care. One option was acupuncture and moxabustion. No one knew how it worked, but it did; the newly formed Chinese government said so. Patients said so. Physicians said so-at least, most of the time. This paper explores the early history of globalizing acupuncture-moxabustion, and in particular new techniques in acupuncture analgesia. In the 1970s, hundreds of reports from hospitals in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Singapore, Berlin, Michigan, and Colombo featuring patients who underwent open heart surgery, open chest surgery, and thyroid surgery completely awake and alert.
Nearly a decade after his visit to Kazakhstan, Jayasuriya would become known for developing his own technique for applying local analgesia in Cesarean sections. Thin needles connected to thin wires that connected to an electric box. The needles rotated up to 120 rounds per minute as patients lay awake, aware of their surroundings and the sound of jostling of scalpels and surgical saws. This paper uses frameworks in feminist STS to recast histories of acupuncture analgesia through the globalization of acupuncture. It takes Anton Jayasuriya and his patients to de-center China across forms of "Chinese" medicine and queers new needling technologies and the ontological discourses surrounding it. Acupuncture needles could do everything. Needling as a technique could treat anything. And perhaps the electric box that stimulated the needles could be used as a metaphor to explain everything.

Metadata

Presenter 4

Uncomfortable Boxes: A History of Thermal Discomfort in 20th Century India

Bharat Venkat

UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics

Abstract

What does it mean to be uncomfortable, and how might tracing discomfort as a historical artifact help us to understand something about the thermoregulation of different kinds of bodies in colonial and postcolonial India? The very idea of discomfort seems painfully bourgeois, the kind of concern that can only be entertained by certain kinds of people, and experienced by certain kinds of bodies, deeply enmeshed in circuits of capital, consumerism, and unseemly wealth. But can turning to a history of discomfort reveal more than the minor irritations of the well-to-do? Somehow both more and less than an ephemeral feeling, I want to suggest that discomfort indexes a relationship between body and material, being and milieu, that is poorly fitted. This paper focuses specifically on the history of thermal comfort as it was made into an object of concern across a range of disciplines: architecture, design, urban planning, engineering, biology, and tropical medicine. Firmly situated within a colonial geography of the tropics, India was construed as a hot place that both allowed for the use of metropolitan conceptions of comfort while simultaneously requiring a separate accounting for the unique troubles posed by the Indian heat. This heat required both registration (what kind of heat was this?) and a series of adjustments, both major and minor, in the provisioning and governance of bodies. In tracing this history of adjustments, this paper will ask how ideas of thermal comfort were translated across language and culture, race and class, and finally, biology and the built environment.