Thomas Hughes on electric power as a sociotechnical system

We have quite a few ideas about how technology affects us personally and socially. But we are less aware of the ways in which facts about the contemporary social world influences the development of technology — at any given time in history. Technological change is a complex social process, and one that is influenced by multiple large social features — population dynamics, the education system, the institutions of property and the market that are in effect, and even political ideology.

Thomas Hughes’ important 1983 book Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 drew out the social and political influences that shaped the development of one of the most important contemporary technologies, electric power. Hughes offers a detailed narrative leading from the important scientific discoveries and inventions in the 1880s that created the possibility of using electricity for power and light; through the creation of complex organizations by such systems builders as Thomas Edison and Elmer Sprague to solve the many technical problems that stood in the way of successful implementation of these technical possibilities; to the establishment of even larger social, political, and financial systems through which systems builders implemented the legal, financial, and physical infrastructure through which electricity could be adopted by large cities and regions. (Simon Winchester tells some of the same story in a less technical way in The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible.)

Along the way, Hughes demolishes several important ideas about the history of technology. First, he refutes the notion that there was an inevitable logic to the development of electric power. At many points in the story there were choices available that did not have unique technical solutions. (VHS or Betamax?) The battle of the systems (direct vs. alternating current) is one such example; Edison’s work proceeded on the basis of the technology of direct current, whereas the industry eventually adopted Tesla’s alternative technology of alternating current. Each choice posed technical hurdles which required solution; but there is good reason to believe that the alternative not taken could have been adopted with suitable breakthroughs along the other path. The path chosen depends on a set of social factors — popular opinion, the press, the orientation of professional engineering schools, the availability of financing, and the intensity of the intellectual resources brought to bear on the technical problems that arise by the research community.

Second, Hughes establishes that, even when the basic technology was settled, the social implementation of the technology, including the pace of adoption, was profoundly influenced by nontechnical factors. Most graphically, by comparing the proliferation of power stations and power grids in London, Berlin, and Chicago, Hughes demonstrates that differences in political structure (e.g., jurisdiction and local autonomy) and differences in cultural attitudes elicited markedly different patterns of implementation of municipal and residential electric power. Chicago shows a pattern of a few large power stations in the central city, London shows a pattern of myriad small stations throughout the metropolitan area, and Berlin shows a pattern of a few large stations in the center of the city. Hughes argues that these differences of configuration reflected factors including municipal jurisdiction and the economic interests of large potential users. Moreover, these differences in styles of implementation can lead to major differences in other sorts of social outcomes; for example, the failure of London to implement a large-scale and rational system of electric power distribution meant that its industrial development was impeded, whereas Chicago’s industrial output increased rapidly during the same period.

Third, Hughes sheds much light on the social and individual characteristics of invention and refinement that exist internal to the process of technological change. He describes a world of inventors and businesses that was highly attuned to the current challenges that stood in the way of further progress for the technology at any given time. Major hurdles to further development constituted “reverse salients” which then received extensive attention from researchers, inventors, and businesses. The designs of generators, dynamos, transformers, light bulbs, and motors each presented critical, difficult problems that stood in the way of the next step; and the concentrated but independent energies of many inventors and scientists led frequently to independent and simultaneous solutions to these problems.

Fourth, Hughes makes the point that the development of the technology was inseparable from the establishment of “massive, extensive, vertically integrated production systems,” including banks, factories, and electric power companies (Hughes 1983, 5). “The rationale for undertaking this study of electric power systems was the assumption that the history of all large-scale technology—not only power systems—can be studied effectively as a history of systems” (p. 7). The technology does not drive itself, and it is not driven (exclusively) by the technical discoveries of the inventor and scientist. Rather, the eventual course of development and implementation is the complex result of social pulls and constraints, as well as the inherent possibilities of the scientific and technical material.

Finally, Hughes introduces the important concept of “technological momentum.” By this concept, he means to identify the point that a large technology—transportation, communication, power production—once implemented on a wide scale, acquires an inertia that is difficult to displace. Engineers and designers have acquired specialized knowledge and ways of approaching problems in the field, factories have been established to build the specialized machines and parts needed for the technology, and investors and banks have embedded their fortunes in the physical implementation of the technology. “Business concerns, government agencies, professional societies, educational institutions, and other organizations that shape and are shaped by the technical core of the system also add to the momentum” (p. 15). So VHS technology came to dominate Betamax, and the QWERTY keyboard has outlasted competitors such as the Dvorak keyboard arrangement.

Hughes demonstrates several important lessons for anyone interested in the development of modern technology systems. First, through his detailed account of a complex 50-year international process of design and implementation, he shows that the development of a large technological system like electric power is an example of a path-dependent and contingent process. Nonetheless, it is a process that can be explained through careful historical research, and a variety of large-scale social and institutional factors are pertinent to the outcomes. Second, he demonstrates the important scope of agency and choice within this story. Outcomes are contingent, and individuals and local agents are able to influence the stream of events at every point. And finally, through his concept of technological momentum, he provides a constructive way of thinking about the social influence of technology itself within the fabric of historical change—not as an ultimate determinant of outcomes but as a constraining and impelling set of limitations and opportunities within the context of which individuals strategize and choose.

Hughes gives further support for the point of plasticity of social change made frequently here by demonstrating the sensitivity of the course of technology development to the social and political environment. Technological possibilities and constraints do not by themselves determine historical outcomes—even the narrow case of a particular course of the development of a particular cluster of technologies. The technical and scientific setting of a particular invention serves to constrain but not to determine the ultimate course of development that the invention takes. A broad range of technical outcomes are accessible in the medium term. In place of a technological determinism, however, Hughes argues for technological momentum. Once a technology/ social system is embodied on the ground, other paths of development are significantly more difficult to reach. Thus, there are technological imperatives once a new set of technical possibilities come on the scene; but the development of these possibilities is sensitive to nontechnical environmental influences (e.g., the scope of local political jurisdiction, as we saw in the comparison of British, German, and American electric power systems).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s