20.435 technological progress & de-skilling practice -- a correction

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Fri, 2 Feb 2007 10:19:01 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 435.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 02 Feb 2007 10:13:20 +0000
         From: "Alvarado, Rafael" <alvaradr_at_dickinson.edu>
         Subject: RE: 20.433 technological progress & de-skilling practice


One minor correction to this otherwise very useful precis: The author is
Davi_s_ Baird, now Dean of the Honors College and Director of the
nanoScience and Technology Studies Group at the University of South
Carolina (the other USC).

Rafael C. Alvarado, Ph.D.
Director of Academic Technology Services
PO Box 1773
Dickinson College
Carlisle PA 17013

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                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 433.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

                       Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

           Date: Thu, 01 Feb 2007 09:06:16 +0000
           From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
           Subject: technological progress & de-skilling practice

David Baird, in Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments
(California, 2004), uses the history of analytical chemistry to show how
the technological development of instruments tends to de-skill the
fields of enquiry which these instruments are designed to serve (pp.
96-112). In its classical form, the analytical chemist uses his or her
knowledge of chemical interactions to determine the constituent parts of
a compound by separating them out.
This, he shows, requires much subtlety and craft, though the process is
often long and tedious, hence a problem not merely for the learned
practitioner, who invests much time to get results, but also for the
fields of application in which many such chemists work. (Think, for
example, of industries in which the specific composition of a metal is
crucial to manufacture. The speed at which a molten metallic compound is
analyzed becomes a major bottleneck and the accuracy of analysis
crucial. In the days of classical analysis, a 15% error rate was not
uncommon.) To make a long but fascinating story short, what happened was
that instruments were developed that more and more successfully embodied
the craft-knowledge of the chemists, greatly speeding up the analysis
and radically increasing its accuracy.
Analysis by instrumentation won the day.

The victory of instrumentalized analysis had social consequences. A new
class of technicians arose -- those with sufficient skill to operate the
instruments but not, by any means, chemists with the skills of former
days. The practice of analysis had become de-skilled. In an editorial
published in 1947, Walter Murphy described the situation:

>The widespread introduction of instrumentation has caused a >sharp
division in the analytical laboratory between those of >professional
and subprofessional training, experience and ability. Today >thousands
of analytical procedures are carried on readily by laboratory
>technicians. The true professional is expected to direct, to
administer, >and to pioneer research in analytical chemistry. He is
therefore >required to be an organic chemist, and may, at times, be
expected to be >a biochemist, a metallurgist, a specialist, if you
will, in a dozen or >more highly specialized fields. He most certainly
must be somewhat of an >expert in electronics -- he must be almost as
much a physicist as >physicists themselves. In addition, he is usually
expected to be >specially skilled in some field within the profession
of analytical >chemistry.

Murphy made strenuous efforts to change the perception of his field so
that the demands made on the professional chemist would be properly
appreciated, and so the status of the field raised.
Apparently he was quite successful -- distinctions between chemists and
technicians did develop; curricula were revamped; awards established.
The profession rethought itself amidst much confusion about its nature
-- like a pharmicist filling a prescription or a doctor planning a
course of treatment? Another chemist, Ralph Mueller, promoted a science
of instrumentation, for by this point instruments were themselves
recognized as an independent medium in which knowledge was developed,
discoveries made.

Obviously our situation with computing is different. But there are
lessons to be learned, choices to be made. What do you think these are?


Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
Received on Fri Feb 02 2007 - 05:30:41 EST

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