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Connoisseurship in Sci-Tech July 11, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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*First, on the WordPress version of this, please post a comment if you can’t see the banner with the picture of the radio tower. I’ve been having trouble with this. It seems to be stabilized, but that’s only on browsers on work computers.

Continuing on with the 20th-century historiography issue, I’d like to mention that I’ve been pretty taken with recent trends studying “connoisseurship”. To an extent, this idea has been allied with the idea of “tacit knowledge”–those elements of science that cannot be easily expressed and replicated. I used to be really into the tacit knowledge idea, but I’ve been less excited about it lately because I haven’t been able to find a good use for it outside of the standard critiques of the idea of obvious science (science that is readily recognized as truthful, and is easily replicable).

But, what really grabs me about connoisseurship is its power to describe motivation. Put it this way: Robert Oppenheimer famously described the hydrogen bomb problem as “technically sweet”, which was a motivation for pursuing it. If we can describe the criteria of what might constitute a “sweet” problem, or standard heuristic and argumentative methods in various times and places, we will have a historiographical tool that can be used to address multiple histories.

What I like best is that it’s the sort of tool that translates easily between scientific and technological milieus. What constitutes “the innovative approach”, “the appealing”, “the pressing problem”, and why? In technology studies, I’ve really liked some recent work I’ve seen on technical enthusiasm (MIT grad student Kieran Downes has been doing some nice work on audiophiles that I have specifically in mind). Within this kind of culture you have a stock of common knowledge (gizmos, mathematical methods, experimental apparatuses), and a set of things you’re on the lookout for (useful applications in certain fields, elegant solutions, certain kinds of phenomena). Innovation consists of combining these things in novel, but well-appreciated ways. While deeper innovation might consist of doing something more unfamiliar and pursuing strategies to assemble a culture of connoisseurship around it.

All this is very social studies of science and technology, of course. To understand the success or failure of a piece of science or of a technology, you have to understand the culture of its reception. I think the point of departure is in historians’ need to identify traditions of connoisseurship, and to examine the ways in which they became robust or stable and the reasons why. Anyway, that’s all on that for now.

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