Home / Edward Jones-Imhotep, Unfailing Machines, Dangerous Systems, and the History of the Technological Self


Edward Jones-Imhotep, History of Technology, York University

This paper/presentation explores the history of machine breakdowns, accidents, and malfunctions as a history of the technological self: a history of the kinds of people that failing machines created, threatened, or presupposed. It tracks one thread of that history through two influential episodes and their iconic technologies: the French Revolutionary project to build an unfailing machine — the guillotine; and the massive, state-sponsored attempt in late-Victorian Britain to understand the complex causes and hidden effects of spectacular railway accidents. Against our first intuitions, the guillotine’s unrelenting efficacy was itself a historical product demanded by its origins as a “sentimental machine,” born out of the union between late-eighteenth century public psychology and the contemporary mechanical arts. Similarly, the late-Victorian embrace of “systems” as both an explanation and a solution for technological disasters emerged out of concerns over liberal governance, personal responsibility, and the frailties of the “nervous” individual. In each case, the paper illustrates how historical concerns over the self helped shape specific constellations of practices, concepts, and materials central to the technologies and cultures of modern period.

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